The Story of the Little Bronze Cross for Valour

The War Illustrated, Volume 8, No. 199, Page 598, February 2, 1945.

The most famous decoration in the world - the highest of its kind - the Victoria Cross is but an ounce of bronze. But the award itself is without price. This story of its record up to the present day - told by J. M. MICHAELSON - is of particular interest in connexion with the series of portraits of V.C.s which have appeared in "The War Illustrated" since its commencement.

Another stirring chapter in the history of the Victoria Cross was written recently, when a D.C.M. awarded for a very courageous act in battle was later replaced by the higher award of a V.C. It is believed that this was at least partly on the suggestion of H.M. the King, who had personally decorated the soldier concerned.

All honours come from the King, but the V.C is peculiarly a royal honour. The idea of a new cross as a decoration for the highest courage in the face of the enemy was Queen Victoria's, and each sovereign subsequently has contributed something to the V.C and the manner in which it is a awarded. Apart from the original idea, Queen Victoria personally suggested the nobly simple words "For Valour" on the cross. The first suggestion was that the wording should be "For the Brave." Queen Victoria objected that this might lead to the inference that only those who received the Cross were brave. After some thought she suggested "For Valour," and no one had any doubt it was a happy inspiration.

King Edward VII secured a change in the warrant governing the conditions, by which the V.C. could be awarded posthumously. Previously, the rule had been that if a man died during the performance of an act that might entitle him to a V.C. or at any time before the Cross was presented, the Cross was withheld, although the record remained. Many V.C.s since have been awarded posthumously, the presentation as a rule being made to the next-of-kin.

King George V, who presented 633 V.C.s for supreme acts of courage in the war of 1914-1918, changed the warrant so that it was not restricted to men in the fighting services but could be given to anyone performing an act of great courage "in the face of the enemy," with the proviso that the individual was acting under someone in the regular services. This made women and even civilians eligible in certain circumstances. The actual words of the supplementary warrant speak of "every grade and rank of all grades of all branches of H.M. Forces, British and Colonial." Eligibility, originally confined to men in the home forces, had already been extended to Indian soldiers by a change in the rules in 1911. In the present war, at the time of writing, there have been 17 V.C.s awarded to members of the Indian Army, 22 to members of the Dominion Forces and one, to a member of a Colonial Force, that of Fiji.

It is not easy to visualize conditions in which a civilian could receive the Cross, and it was for this reason that the King instituted the George Cross in 1940, for gallantry in air raids in this country and not in face of a the enemy as with the V.C. In spite of the great number of women in the military nursing services, the W.R.N.S., the A.T.S. and the W.A.A.F., conditions under which a heroic act might be performed within the scope of the V.C. do not often occur and no award has so far been made to a woman.

The V.C. was officially announced on January 29, 1856, and the first awards were made in the following year when a considerable number of the Crosses were presented simultaneously. Altogether in the "minor wars." of the 19th century and the Boer War, 525 V.C.s were presented; and the fact that only some 20 have been awarded in the present war reflects the very high standard of courage required and perhaps, the changing conditions of war in which individual heroism counts less than "team work."

Crosses Made from Crimean Cannon

The first, V.Cís were struck from the metal of Russian cannon captured at Sebastopol during the Crimean war and the custom remained until early in the present war, the supply of this metal ran out. It is now supplied by private contract. Unlike all other medals, the V.C. is not struck at the Mint, but made by a private firm of London jewellers. They made the first V.C. and have continued to make the Crosses ever since. In a special ledger is recorded the name of every man for whom a Cross has been made, the number now totalling well over 1,200. The first entry is Charles David Lucas, a midshipman who in 1854 handled a burning shell to save his ship and comrades.

Value of the metal is about threepence, and the weight is one ounce. The award itself is, of course, without price. It is recognised not only in Britain but all over the world as the hardest honour to win. It has never been made "cheap" by numerous awards and is harder to win now, perhaps, than ever it was. Courage is always hard to grade, and the special committee who have the task of deciding finally about recommendations, even when they have ensured that only recommendations complying with the warrant are considered, can have no easy task. It a must not be forgotten, also, that many acts of great courage in modern warfare are performed when there are no witnesses who survive. The exact words of the warrant are "some signal act of valour or devotion to the Country" performed in the face of the enemy. "Signal" means, presumably, outstanding, and it is therefore not enough to perform an act of great heroism. It must be outstanding. For a short period during the last century the warrant was amended so that acts of gallantry not in the face of the enemy could be rewarded; one such award was made to a soldier after a Fenian raid in Canada.

Originally the ribbon of the V.C. was dark red if the wearer was in the Army, blue if he was in the Navy. The institution of the R.A.F. would have called for a third colour. Instead, a single colour for all the Forces was decided upon. Today, the V.C. ribbon is always dark red. When the ribbon is worn without the medal, a miniature V.C. is in the centre. If a bar to the V.C. has been awarded, a second miniature Cross is added to the ribbon. A bar to the V.C. has been awarded only twice in the history of the decoration, to Captain Chevasse (second award was posthumous), and Lieut. Col. A. Martin-Leake, both of the R.A.M.C.

Crosses are not made individually for each recipient. A very small number are kept in stock and sent as required to the Service Ministries. The V.C., is, of course, the most treasured of decorations, but occasionally one has come into the saleroom. The prices paid have varied from £50 to £170. A Cross is not permitted to be sold until after the death of the recipient. Every winner of the Victoria Cross not an officer receives automatically ten pounds a year, and a bar to the decoration brings another five pounds a year. Where there is need, up to £50 a year can be given by the terms of the warrant.

For those who have never seen a V.C., technical details will be of interest. Name, rank and unit of the recipient are engraved on the reverse of the clasp. The date of the act which won the Cross is on the reverse of the Cross itself. The clasp is decorated with a "laureated spray," and when there is a bar to the V.C. it is of similar design to the clasp fixed half way up the riband, The V.C. is worn before all decorations or insignia of any kind.

There have been a number of pleas in the Press for more V.Cís to be awarded. During the first years of this war, the number of V.Cís averaged only one a month, compared with twelve a month in the war of 1914-18. The number of Crosses awarded has increased recently, and a short time ago five awards were announced on a single day.