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The Victoria Cross (VC)

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Since its creation in 1856 the Victoria Cross has been the highest military decoration available to a British soldier. It is an individual honour conferred on those who have shown "most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy".

It was created in the aftermath of the Crimean War by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria so that any soldier of whatever rank could be honoured with a prestigious distinction if his actions in the battlefield so merited it. Up until that time only superior officers of the British Imperial Army could receive the highest decoration, the Order of the Bath (awarded upon recommendation), while ordinary soldiers could only hope for a battle medal as reward.

The conditions for awarding the Victoria Cross were laid down by Prince Albert in a Royal Warrant in 1857. It stipulates that only individual soldiers serving in the armies of the Commonwealth countries and their allies can receive it. They have to be recommended for the honour and that recommendation has to be supported by three witnesses of the action in which the potential recipient distinguished himself. If the honour is to be awarded to a group of soldiers then they have to decide which of their number will actually collect the medal. It may also be awarded posthumously. The medal is usually presented by the British monarch and beneficiaries may add the letters "VC" to their names.

The medals themselves are made from bronze thought to have come from two Chinese guns confiscated from the Russian Army after the Siege of Sevastopol in 1854, the latter a turning point in the Crimean War which saw the Ottoman Empire, in alliance with the United Kingdom and France, pitted against the Russian Empire between 1854 and 1856.

The medal is a bronze cross pattée bearing the crown of Saint Edward surmounted by a lion, a royal symbol, and the inscription "FOR VALOUR". On the back, the recipient's regiment, rank and name are inscribed in capital letters and, if possible, the place where the distinguishing action took place. The medal is suspended from a crimson ribbon and worn on the left side of the chest.

To date 1,356 people have been awarded the Victoria Cross. During the First World War a total of 634 soldiers were awarded the honour and of these 521 received it for their valour on the Western Front, 138 of them receiving it posthumously. The Victoria Cross was added to the gravestones of those holders who died in action and were buried in one of the Commonwealth military cemeteries. Between 1914 and 1918, VCs were presented to 472 Britons (English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish), 63 Australians, 63 Canadians, 20 Indians, 11 New Zealanders, 4 South Africans and 1 Newfoundlander.

Three soldiers have been awarded the Victoria Cross twice. When this happens a bar is added to the ribbon of the medal with, on its reverse side, the name of the place of the distinguishing action. The decoration is thereafter known as a "VC and bar". All three were awarded during the Great War.

In recent years Canada, Australia and New Zealand have all created their own variants of the Victoria Cross which constitute the highest military honour in their respective armies. The Victoria Crosses for Australia, Canada, and New Zealand were created in 1991, 1993, and 1999 respectively and are identical to the original except for the inscription which has been Latinized (PRO VALORE).

Edouard ROOSE

Archive pictures

Victoria Cross

Clipart courtesy FCIT (gif - 0.09 MB)

Victoria Cross