The Victoria Cross is the highest military decoration in the British and Commonwealth Armed Forces.
To be recommended for a Victoria Cross the proposed recipient must have performed deeds of exceptional valour beyond the call of duty whilst subject to enemy fire.
Of the 20 million or so men and women who have served in the Armed Forces since the medals inception 160 years ago only 1,358 have been awarded.
By late 1854, Britain was fully engaged in its first major conflict in almost 40 years against the Russians on the Crimean peninsula but despite the jingoism that had preceded it the army was to prove itself ill-prepared and worse its command structure inefficient and those charged with running it incompetent.
In an arduous and bloody campaign the dispatches arriving from sent by from correspondents such as John Howard Russell of The Times detailed a string of woes and near calamities that not only appalled the public but greatly disturbed the Queen.
Despite being poorly led, inadequately provisioned, and dying of disease in their thousands in the rat infested hospital at Scutarii or of hypothermia in their bivouacs victories were still won at the Battles of Alma, Inkerman, and Balaclava.
Despite all this the troops behaviour in combat remained exemplary as highlighted in such incidences as the Thin Red Line and the Charge of the Light Brigade both deeds heralded as of the utmost heroism – surely there should be some way of acknowledging and rewarding acts that went way beyond a soldiers devotion to his Queen and Country.
Certainly Queen Victoria thought so, but a reward system that recognised neither status nor class would be controversial.
It was widely believed that an Officer led his men into battle and that the common soldier fighting under instruction was in obeying orders merely doing his duty. Also, the army fought as a collective unit and to single out any individual for particular praise would damage morale.
But Victoria, supported by her husband Prince Albert under whose guidance the new medal was both designed and named was inaugurated by Royal Decree (Royal Sign Manual) on 29 January 1858, and backdated to cover the Crimean War.
Its creation was later endorsed by Parliament.
Cast from the bronze of enemy cannon captured at the Siege of Sevastopol it was intended to have no intrinsic value other than as a symbol of the nation’s gratitude with the simple inscription – For Valour.
On 26 June 1857, at a ceremony held in London’s Hyde Park, Queen Victoria awarded 62 Crimean War combat veterans with the medal that now carried her name.
Victoria Crosses Awarded – 1,538
1. England 621
2. Ireland 180
3. Scotland 164
4. Australia 96
5. Canada 96
6. India 27
7. Wales 25
8. New Zealand 22
9. South Africa 21
10. Nepal (Gurkhas) 13
11. Channel Islands 11
5 United States, 3 Denmark, 2 Newfoundland, 2 German, 2 Rhodesia, 1 Belgium, Ceylon, Fiji, Grenada, Jamaica, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, Virgin Islands, 58 remain uncertain.
Royal Navy 117
Royal Artillery 65
Royal Air Force 39
Royal Medical Corps 38
Infantry, Cavalry, and other Combat Units 1,191
Awarded World War One 634
Awarded World War Two 182
Post – 1945 12
First recipient of the Victoria Cross:
Lt Charles Lucas RN from County Monaghan in Ireland who serving aboard HMS Hecla during the bombardment of the Russian fortress at Bomarsund on the Baltic coast picked up a smouldering shell about to explode and carried onto the deck before throwing it overboard where it detonated, saving a great many lives.
Youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross:
Thomas Flynn (Drummer Boy) 15 years and 3 months – on 26 November 1857 during the assault on Cawnpore in India he engaged several of the enemy in hand-to-hand combat.
He died an inmate of the Workhouse in 1892.
Andrew Fitzgibbon (Stretcher-Bearer) 15 years and 3 months – on 26 August 1860 during the storming of the Taku Forts in China he repeatedly exposed himself to danger to remove wounded soldiers from the line of fire despite being severely injured himself.
William Raynor, Lt Bengal Army 69 years – 11 May 1857, during the Siege of Delhi along with 9 others he defended the ammunition depot against overwhelming odds. Aware that they were about to be overrun he detonated the ammunition killing a great many of the enemy but also five of the defenders.
He had expected to die in the explosion but survived.
Posthumous Awards 295
Youngest Posthumous Award:
Jack Cornwall RN 16 years and 145 days – on 31 May whilst serving aboard HMS Chester during the Battle of Jutland he remained at his post manning a deck gun despite the rest of his crew having been killed. Mortally wounded he was nonetheless taken to a civilian hospital where it was hoped his mother would be able to see him before he died.
She did not arrive in time.
First Posthumous Award:
The decision to award the Victoria Cross posthumously wasn’t made until 1907 with amongst its first recipients Lt Teignmouth Melvill and Lt Nevill Coghill who were killed at the Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879 whilst trying to save the Regimental Colours.
A decision that remains controversial to this day.
People to receive the Victoria Cross twice:
Captain Arthur Martin-Leake (Royal Army Medical Corps) 1902 & 1914.
Captain Noel Chavasse (Royal Army Medical Corps) 1916 & 1917.
Captain Charles Upham (New Zealand Army) 1941 & 1942.
4 pairs of brothers have won the Victoria Cross.
Most Victoria Crosses awarded on a single day:
24 – Second Relief of Lucknow, 16 November 1857.
Most Victoria Crosses awarded to a particular Unit on a single day.
7 – B Company, 24th Regiment of Foot, South Wales Borderers/Warwickshire Regiment, Defence of Rorke’s Drift 22/23, January 1879.
Eleven were awarded in total.
Lt John Rouse Merriott Chard, Officer Commanding, Mission Station, Rorke’s Drift
Squadron-Leader Guy Gibson, Commander of Operation Chastise, the Dambuster Raid.
His Citation Read:
Wing Commander Gibson personally made the initial attack on the Moehne dam. Descending to within a few feet of the water and taking the full brunt of the antiaircraft defences, he delivered his attack with great accuracy.
Afterwards he circled very low for 30 minutes, drawing the enemy fire on himself in order to leave as free a run as possible to the following aircraft which were attacking the dam in turn.
Wing Commander Gibson then led the remainder of his force to the Eder dam where, with complete disregard for his own safety, he repeated his tactics and once more drew on himself the enemy fire so that the attack could be successfully developed.
Captain Edward Fegen
His Citation Read:
On the 5th of November, 1940, in heavy seas, Captain Fegen, in His Majesty’s Armed Merchant Cruiser Jervis Bay, was escorting thirty-eight Merchantmen. Sighting a powerful German warship he at once drew clear of the Convoy, made straight for the Enemy, and brought his ship between the Raider and her prey, so that they might scatter and escape. Crippled, in flames, unable to reply, for nearly an hour the Jervis Bay held the German’s fire. So she went down: but of the Merchantmen all but four or five were saved.
Captain James Leslie Green, Royal Army Medical Corps
He was killed on the 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme.
His citation read:
Although himself wounded, he went to the assistance of an officer who had been wounded and was hung up on the enemy’s wire entanglements, and succeeded in dragging him to a shell hole, where he dressed his wounds, notwithstanding that bombs and rifle grenades were thrown at him the whole time. Captain Green then endeavoured to bring the wounded officer into safe cover, and had nearly succeeded in doing so when he himself was killed.
On 26 February 2015, the Victoria Cross was awarded to Lance-Corporal Joshua Leakey of the Parachute Regiment ‘For Valour’ during service in Afghanistan.