The Victoria Cross was founded by Royal Warrant on 29 January 1856, and was originally intended to be awarded to members of the Royal Navy and British Army who, serving in the presence of the enemy, should have performed some signal act of valour or devotion to their country.
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As Queen Victoria pointed out, it was not an Order, such as the Garter of the Bath. It offered no knighthood, bore no religious significance and contained no ranks within itself. It was intended solely as a decoration “to be highly prized and eagerly sought after by the officers and men of Our naval and military services”.
Pensions were granted to all holders of the Victoria Cross below commissioned rank, and an expulsion clause allowed for a recipient’s name to be erased from the official register in certain wholly discreditable circumstances, and his pension cancelled. King George V felt strongly that the decoration should never be forfeited. In a letter to his Private Secretary, Lord Stamfordham, on 26 July 1920, his views are forcibly expressed:
“The King feels so strongly that, no matter the crime committed by anyone on whom the VC has been conferred, the decoration should not be forfeited. Even where a VC to be sentenced to be hanged for murder, he should be allowed to wear his VC on the gallows”.
Since the original 1856 warrant, amendments have been made modifying or limiting the VC’s provisions. In 1858 Queen Victoria decreed that the VC could be won by those who
“may perform acts of conspicuous courage and bravery … in circumstances of extreme danger, such as the occurrence of a fire on board ship, or of the foundering of a vessel at sea, or under any other circumstances in which … life or public property may be saved”.
In 1881, a new VC warrant was signed which stated “Our Will and Pleasure is that the qualification (for the award of the Victoria Cross) shall be
“Conspicuous bravery or devotion to the country in the presence of the enemy
It was this last stipulation that necessitated the introduction of the George Cross in 1940.
In 1902 King Edward VII approved the principle of awarding the VC posthumously. In 1911 King George V admitted native officers and men of the Indian Army to eligibility, and in 1920, it was extended to include the Royal Air Force, and “matrons, sisters, nurses … serving regularly or temporarily under the orders, direction or supervision” of the military authorities.
It was again emphasised that the VC
… shall only be awarded for most conspicuous bravery or some daring pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.
Queen Victoria chose the design for the new decoration. It is in the form of a Maltese Cross ensigned with the Royal Crest and a scroll inscribed simply “For Valour”. It is connected by a V-shaped link to a bar engraved on the face with the recipient’s name. The date of the deed for which the honour is bestowed is engraved on the back of the Cross itself. It is worn on the left breast, before all other medals and awards, suspended from a 1½-inch wide red ribbon. Originally the VC ribbon was blue for the Navy, and dark red for the Army. Since 1918, all VC awards use the crimson shade. The medal itself was, and still is, made of bronze melted down from the Russian cannons captured at Sevastopol in the Crimean War.
SPORTING VICTORIA CROSS RECIPIENTS
- Captain Noel Chavasse (VC and bar, MC) RAMC represented Great Britain in the 400 metres at the London 1908 Olympics. Both Noel and his brother Christopher competed in the 4 x 400 metre relay at the same games.
- Lieutenant General Sir Philip Neame (VC, KBE, CB, DSO, Chevalier Legion d’Honneur, Croix de Guerre) won the Gold Medal at the Paris 1924 Olympics. Neame was part of the four-man team that beat Norway and Sweden in the running deer team competition.
- Second Lieutenant Donald Simpson Bell (VC) was the fist professional football player to enlist for service during WWI. He died shortly after performing his VC action and is now buried in Gordon Dump Cemetery (4 miles NE of Albert in France).
- Second Lieutenant John Harrison (VC, MC) played for the Hull Rugby League side, where he scored 106 tries in 116 matches. He was posthumously awarded his VC and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial (bays 4 and 5).
- Brigadier General Paul Aloysius Kenna (VC, DSO) was awarded the VC for his actions in Sudan during 1898. He was selected to lead the GB Show-jumping Team at the Stockholm 1912 Olympics. Kenna was killed at Gallipoli on 30 August 1915 and is buried in Lala Baba Cemetery (Plot II, Row A, Grave 1).
- Lieutenant Colonel Brian Turner Lawrence (VC) was a member of Kenna’s Show-jumping team at the Stockholm Olympic Games. He was awarded the VC for his actions during the Boer War in 1900.
- Major Thomas Joseph Crean (VC, DSO) was an Irish Rugby Union international forward who won the VC. He was awarded the VC for his conduct during the Boer War.
- Captain Robert Johnston (VC) was a rugby union player who played for and captained Transvaal, leading them to Currie Cup wins. He was awarded the VC for conduct during the Boer War, and became a good friend of Crean (mentioned earlier).
- Brigadier Frederick Maurice Watson Harvey (VC, MC) played Rugby Union for Ireland versus Wales in 1907 and France in 1911. He was awarded the VC for conduct in France during WWI.
- Lieutenant-Commander Arthur Leyland Harrison (VC) played Rugby Union for England against Ireland and France in the 1914 Five Nations Championship. Harrison was posthumously awarded the VC for his conduct in the Zeebrugge Operation on 23 April 1918. Due to having no known grave, Harrison is commemorated on the Zeebrugge Memorial.
VICTORIA CROSS RECIPIENTS WHO SAVED THEIR BROTHERS
Two Victoria Cross medals have been won by men who saved the lives of their brothers:
- Major C.J.S. Gough saved his brother Lieutenant H.H. Gough (who was already a VC) during the Indian Mutiny.
- Trooper H.E. Ramsden saved his brother’s life in the South African War in 1899.
VICTORIA CROSS RECIPIENTS NOT AT TIME OF WAR:
- Privates D. Bell, J. Cooper, W. Griffiths, T. Murphy and Assistant Surgeon C.M. Douglas, all member of the 24th Regiment (later The South Wales Borderers), for bravery at sea in saving life in a storm off the Andaman Islands, 1867.
- Private T. O’Hea (The Rifle Brigade) for extinguishing a fire in a railway car containing 2,000 lbs of ammunition at Danville Railway Station, Quebec, Canada, in 1866.
VICTORIA CROSS AWARD TO THE U.S UNKNOWN WARRIOR
The American Unknown Warrior, who is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, was presented with the Victoria Cross on behalf of King George V by Admiral of the Fleet Lord Beatty at the same time that he laid the King’s wreath on the tomb, on 11 November 1921.
The US Government bestowed a Congressional Medal of Honour on the British Unknown Soldier buried in Westminster Abbey.
VICTORIA CROSS AWARDS TO CIVILIANS
Five civilians have won the VC:
- Mr. R.L. Mangles, Mr. W.F. McDonell, Mr. T.H. Kavanagh of the Bengal Civil Service, Mr. G.B. Chicken, a volunteer of the Indian Naval Brigade, during the Indian Mutiny, 1857.
- Reverend J.W. Adams, of the Bengal Ecclesiastical Department, during the 2nd Afghan War, 1879.