The above title comes from a description in the newspaper the day of the first ever investiture of Victoria Crosses to brave heroes at Hyde Park in London England back on 26 June 1857. The writer was impressed somewhat with the ceremony, but was less enthused obviously with the physical appearance of the medal being presented. One that in later years became valued as the most recognized and prized medal of valor in the British Empire and beyond. Value of course being in what it stood for and not what it looked like or the fact that it cost, like the US Medal of Honor, a mear pittance to physically make.
But the story of the Victoria Cross, pictured to the left, started before that day! It probably began in the days of the Crimean War. And on several fronts to boot.
On one of these fronts we have the incredible work of a hero remembered as The Lady with the Lamp... Florence Nightingale, nurse, social reformer and no nonsense advocate for the better treatment of the injured and dying soldiers.
Having developed a friendship with the Secretary of War in Crimean War days, doors opened for her to go to the Crimea. There she would soon be exposed to the horrendous conditions the soldiers were facing. But her ace was that she was not in the military and she had avenues to get beyond the bureaucratic indifference in the field by many. She could get the message back to England and make her demands for better care of the wounded and near dead. Nine out of ten were dying, not from bullets but starvation, disease, and poor treatment under the care of those mandated to provide that care. Nightingale's story to bring reforms are historic and ought to be required reading at every household in North America. Those following in her footsteps could well include Americans like Clara Barton of Red Cross fame and nurse Mary Walker, the only female recipient of the US Medal of Honor in its entire history.
There is a very old saying that knowledge is power. There is another saying that oft quotes the concept of Freedom of the Press. (Which of late often seems to mean that those with the press not only have the freedom, but chose WHAT the news of the day is and WHAT they so chose to bring to their customers.) But I digress!
During the Crimean conflict from October 1853 to February 1856, the public back home and sitting in their living-rooms could no longer be kept in the dark about the romantic war in far flung places. Journalists for the first time were at the battlefronts and brought horrendous stories home to the comforted in their homes, Soon those folks began getting uncomfortable about what they were hearing. Take for instance the story of the two relatives that couldn't get along. Their anger for each other led to the disastrous attack history recorded at a place dubbed the... the Valley of Death, otherwise known as the Charge of the Light Brigade. The orders were misinterpreted and most needlessly rode to their deaths. (Only one Victoria Cross was awarded to an officer in that charge... and it was to Canadian Lt Alexander Dunn whom you have hopefully read about in one of my earlier blogs.) (An American in that charge would later serve in the US on the battlefield in Custer's Last Stand.)
Stories were being told in the press about how men died from Scurvy whilst the officials in the field would see supplies destined to treat the illness being dumped in the water because proper authorities were not on hand to sign for the supplies. Same sort of nonsense for a boatload of boots and other supplies and there are many other stories alike.
Worse yet were the stories of the hell of war like the piles of mangled body parts outside of make shift operating tents where the next victim would sit awaiting his turn to contributing to the disease ridden and rat infested pile of rotting flesh. Or their laying in a recovery area where the main water supply had a dead horse laying in the water and no action taken to remove it till Nightingale came along. It and all you can handle... and more... is in the above quoted reading material.
The public were no longer under the illusion that all was grand and that only the most honorable of treatment was being passed on to their loved ones at the front.
Some say that even the incredible story of the youth Charles Lucas (my blog of just a few days ago) brought home the fact that these men regardless of rank or stature in life, could all be similarly awarded with the same medal... one for all... that would recognize their considerable heroism at the very time their country needed it most.
But this was to change... finally!
In December of 1854 the Member of Parliament for Bath, a former Naval Captain by the name of Thomas Scobel, above noted, placed a motion before the House of Commons that called for the creation of a new medal, that all, regardless of rank or stature, could earn. He called it the "Order of Merit." It was to be awarded to all who had been nominated and vetted, who's service included distinguished and prominent personal gallantry.
In early January 1855 The Duke of Newcastle, who was serving then as the secretary of War, wrote to HRH Queen Victoria's consort... her husband Albert. In the letter he reminded the Consort that they had earlier discussions with regards to a bravery medal for all ranks. Perhaps that was as a result of Scobel's original motion!
On 29 January the Duke of Newcastle announced that approval had be reached and that soon their would be a new medal. It would be called the" Military Order of Victoria." But within days there was a change in Secretary's of War. The Duke was out and a new fellow in. But luckily he was of the same mind and the idea was gaining ground. When official documents were drawn up and arrived at Buckingham Palace for final approval. Albert found the name too cumbersome and using his pencil went through the entire document changing the wording so that it simply read Victoria Cross.
HRH Queen Victoria, as seen above, took much interest in the colour and design and even wording on the face of the medal. Her Majesty had the words FOR BRAVERY removed as they implied that only those with the medal were brave, when clearly she had thousands of very brave men in uniform... They were replaced with the words... For Valour which remains on the medal till this day, except in Canada were it was adjusted to read Pro Valour a few years back. There was some talk in those earlier days to have the medal backdated to the Crimean war... but only for soldiers. The Queen clearly demanded that it could go back even earlier and that it was also to be made available to the navy.
Like all sweeping changes there were those for and those against. While criteria was clearly spelled out for the new awards and that they were obviously to be made available regardless of rank, nominations still had to come up the line from the officers in the front line units. Some gave no recommendations at all. One gave 37 for his unit. Obviously the participation was not equally supported.
The Queen decided that each man selected would receive the new Victoria Cross by her in person. There would be a grand parade to be held at Hyde Park and each man would be paraded up to the dias, his citation read and then the Queen would lean down from her horse and pin the medal to the man's chest.
Each regiment having a recipient was to parade a section of men and all had to be rounded up from wherever they where and brought to London for a ceremony to be held on June 26th 1857. Trouble is that the nominations were slow in coming in and the vetting took even longer. The names finally chosen were not gazetted in the London Gazette until 22 June, just days before the investiture was to take place. This of course caused considerable pressure on the medal maker, the well known Hancocks of London to work 24 hours a day to get the medals made and properly inscribed with the recipients name and date of the action being recognized.
On Friday 26 June 1857, a very hot morning in London a crowd of over 12,000 spectators arrived in time to get properly positioned, as did some 4,000 troop members of the Life Guards, Dragoons, Hussars, Royal Engineers, Artillery and Blue Jackets (navy) and others under the command of Sir Colin Campbell. (Campbell's real name at birth was Colin MacLiver, who served under the name Campbell whist with the 7th Battalion of the 69th Regiment in Nova Scotia during the War of 1812.)
At 10 a.m. sharply the loud booms of cannon salutes announced the arrival of the Royal Party and dignitaries. Her Majesty and Consort arrived on horse back as did the Crown Prince of Prussia, the Prince of Wales, and his brother... prince Albert and all took places.
Then the proud men about to receive their Victoria Crosses were lined up and marched out in front of the crowd and the dais area. There were 85 selected to receive the first ever awards, but only 62 could attend the parade. Some of these were in civilian clothes as they at that time had finished their service in the military. As the names were called out each man marched forward, no doubt the sharpest in his career, saluted and was then presented to the Queen who pinned to his chest the most coveted medal of valour throughout the word. He would then probably salute once again and march off as the next approached. The two images above were paintings depicting the scene that historic day.
The whole ceremony lasted only about ten minutes, despite crowds gathering for hours before hand. Once all medals were presented, the official party did a quick review of the troops and were then off again to their regular duties of the day, and the first ever investiture came to a close.
The Navy being the senior service had their medals complete with the blue suspension ribbons, presented first. Then came the marines and then the army. The 17th person on that parade was Lt Alexander Dunn, above mentioned, who was born in Toronto Ontario and was awarded for his heroism during the Charge of the Light Brigade. He would be the first Canadian ever, to be presented with the Victoria Cross. His also was the first Canadian VC gazetted, and for the first deed ever performed by a Canadian that would later result in a VC. If you Google...Only one Victoria Cross Awarded in Charge of Light Brigade... you will be taken back to my blog on Dunn's heroism that appeared in this space on 25 February. (The title was wrong, his was the only VC to an OFFICER.)
Some of the men who ought to be on parade that day would be later awarded their medals at locations quite distant to London. One of these came about 6 weeks after the London ceremony, to Sgt Phillip Smith who was then serving at Montreal. You can read that story also in a past blog by Googling..." the first Victoria Cross to Come to Canada." It appeared back on 14 January in this space.
I also highly recommend you Google... Making the Victoria Cross 1945 on YOU TUBE. There you will find a short clip that actually takes you into Hancocks and you will see actually VC's being made. It is quite interesting.
The first ever ceremony, back in 1857 took place 156 years ago yesterday. I've searched the net and cannot find any news clips of it from anywhere in Canada. Yet again you may well be hearing about the anniversary date for the first time in the country... in these blogs.
hope you enjoy,