Tales of the Victoria Cross
Since 1856, the Victoria Cross has been Britain’s highest military honour. Awarded for “most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour of self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy” (as the current Royal Warrant reads), the history of the Victoria Cross offers not only a catalogue of acts of incredible courage, but a window into the last 170 years of British military history.
Before 1856, there was no official award for gallantry open to all ranks in the British Army and Royal Navy. In the wake of the Crimean War (1854-1855), when a new breed of war correspondents had brought the British public closer than ever before to the hardships and heroism of their armed forces, this state of affairs could endure no longer.
Queen Victoria gave her full support to the institution of the medal that would come to bear her name. The original Royal Warrant, issued on 29 January 1856, read:
“We, taking into Our Royal consideration that there exists no means of adequately rewarding the individual gallant services either of officers [or men] in Our Naval and Military Service … have instituted and created … a New Naval and Military Decoration, which We are desirous should be highly prized and eagerly sought after ..
… the distinction shall be styled and designated “The Victoria Cross,” and shall consist of a Maltese Cross of Bronze, with Our Royal Crest in the centre, and underneath which an escroll bearing this inscription “For Valour”.
… the Cross shall only be awarded to those officers or men who have served Us in the presence of the enemy, and shall have then performed some signal act of valour, or devotion to their country.
… neither rank, nor long service, nor wounds, nor any other circumstance or condition whatsoever, save the merit of conspicuous bravery shall be held to establish a sufficient claim to the honour.”
Thus the Victoria Cross was born. The following year, after much bureaucracy and haranguing, the first VCs were awarded to 111 Naval and Army veterans of the Crimean War, 62 of whom would receive their medals from the Queen personally at a grand investiture in Hyde Park on 26 June 1857. A further 182 VCs would be earned during the Indian Rebellion, which had already broken out by the time of the Hyde Park investiture.
The number of VC recipients would steadily swell as Britain’s colonial wars rolled on, before ballooning during the two World Wars and then slowing to a trickle in the latter half of the 20th century. Today, the number of recipients stands at 1,355, a fifth of the number of people who have reached the summit of Everest, and includes sailors, soldiers, airmen and civilians from across the former Empire and beyond.
The Royal Warrant has been revised many times since 1856, but the precise criteria that deem an action worthy of a VC remain vague to this day. This, combined with a lack of transparency or consistency in the awards process, has unsurprisingly led to a great deal of controversy surrounding many awards, or the lack thereof, and as Britain haltingly comes to terms with its colonial past, a new flavour of controversy now surrounds many historic awards.
‘Valour’, the second full-length album from Forlorn Hope, tells the stories of fifteen VC actions from Crimea to the Second World War; stories of sacrifice, determination and derring do on land, sea and in the air. It is a saga in equal parts thrilling, horrific and heartbreaking that explores not just the exploits of these extraordinary men, but the myriad and diverse conflicts in which they fought.
Further articles on the history of the Victoria Cross and the stories featured on the album will follow as the ‘Valour’ project progresses.