This article is organised as follows:

PART THREE: LEVEL ONE AWARDS

3.0     Introduction

This part of the article outlines the Level One awards available to Service personnel for acts of extreme bravery.

3.1     The Victoria Cross

The Victoria Cross (VC) is the premier operational gallantry award given for the:

“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.”

In other words, an individual must perform an act of extreme bravery carried out under direct enemy fire. It may be awarded to all ranks (officers and other ranks) of the Services and civilians, and can be awarded posthumously. Individuals who perform a further act of such gallantry which would have merited a second award of the VC would be issued with a bar. The MOD Medal Office does not issue this award.

Prior to the Crimean War (October 1853 to February 1856) there was no recognised gallantry medal, but it was deemed that the individual deeds of heroism in this war made such an award necessary. Although the bravery of gallant officers could be recognised with the award of an Order of the Bath, founded in by George I in 1725, there was no equivalent for the ‘ordinary’ British soldier; this was in contrast to other European countries which had awards for Service personnel that did not discriminate against class or rank.

The VC was instituted by royal warrant on 29 January 1856 for award to both officers and non-commissioned ranks of the Royal Navy and the Army who, in the presence of the enemy, shall have performed some signal act of valour. The original royal warrant for the VC stated that the award should be:

“…ordained with a view to place all persons on a perfectly equal footing in relation to eligibility for the Decoration, that 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.”

The then Sovereign, Queen Victoria, deemed that the VC should be simple in design and was to be made from two Russian bronze cannons captured during the Crimean War (although recent research suggests medals to be made from metal of Chinese origin, possibly from captured Chinese weapons that the Russians reused at Sebastopol (Benedictus, 2006)). The VC was deliberately intended to have little actual value, with its value lying in what it stands for and what people do to earn it: be extremely brave. Hand made from the bronze cannon, it gains monetary value only when the recipient’s details are engraved in the medal. The inscription on the Victoria Cross is “For Valour”, a traditional word for bravery. It was personally chosen by Queen Victoria, after whom the medal was named. Queen Victoria turned down the first suggestion, “For the Brave”, explaining that all her solders were brave. It was also her husband Albert’s idea to call it a cross, not “the Military Order of Victoria”. (Benedictus, 2006).

The first awards were announced in the London Gazette of 24 February 1857, with the earliest award backdated to 21 June 1854. It is a requirement of the royal warrant that awards are announced in the London Gazette and a full citation normally published. The Queen’s interest in the award was such that she personally invested 62 of the 111 Crimean recipients at a parade held on 26 June 1857 in Hyde Park, London.

The terms of the award have been altered from time to time, for example:

  • To make provision for posthumous awards (from 1902); and
  • To extend the award to the forces of the Empire and Commonwealth, etc.

The Victoria Cross has retained its position as Britain’s premier award for gallantry in battle and is worn before all other orders, decorations and medals. A ‘bar’ to the Victoria Cross may be awarded in recognition of a second act of gallantry meriting the decoration.

Some interesting facts:

  • Between 1854 and 2011, the VC has been awarded to 1,354 people (although awarded 1,358 times).
  • The first VC was awarded to Midshipman, Later Rear Admiral, Charles Davis Lucas. Whilst serving aboard HMS Hecla, on 21 June 1854, Midshipman Lucas disregarding orders to take cover, picked up a live shell with its fuse still burning and calmly walked to the edge of the ship before dropping it over the side, the shell exploded as it hit the water. This set the standard for others to follow. He was immediately promoted lieutenant and was invested with his VC by Queen Victoria in Hyde Park on 26 June 1857.
  • Three people have been awarded the VC twice, receiving a bar to the original VC:
    • Surgeon Captain Arthur Martin-Leake in 1902 and 1914.
    • Captain Noel Chavasse in 1916 and 1917.
    • Captain Charles Upham in 1941 and 1942.
  • The two youngest recipients of the VC were Thomas Flinn in 1857 and Andrew Fitzgibbon in 1860. Both were 15 years and 3 months.
  • The oldest recipient of the VC was 69 year old William Raynor, who defended an ammunition store in Delhi for five hours in 1857.
  • More VC’s were awarded for suppressing the Indian Mutiny (1857-1858) than during the Second World War (1939-1945). In just one day alone, on 16 November 1857 at the Relief of Lucknow, no less than 24 VCs were awarded.
  • At the battle of Roke’s Drift, in 1879, 137 British soldiers held their ground against thousands of Zulu warriors. 11 VC’s were awarded.
  • Three fathers and sons have earned the VC, including Major Charles Gough in 1857 and his son Major John Gough in 1903.
  • Four pairs of brothers have earned the VC, including Major Charles Gough and his brother Lieutenant Hugh Gough in 1858.
  • Only one set of brothers have each received a VC and a George Cross:
    • Captain Derek Seagrim VC in 1943.
    • Major Hugh Seagrim GC in 1944.
  • In 1902, the VC started to be awarded posthumously, with 295 posthumous awards by 2011.
  • During World War I, 628 VC’s were awarded.
  • During World War II, 182 VC’s were awarded.
  • Since the end of World War II, the original VC has been awarded 15 times: four in the Korean War; one in the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation in 1965; four to Australians in the Vietnam War; two during the Falklands War in 1982; one in the Iraq War in 2004; and three in the War in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2012.
  • As well as the UK, the VC remains the highest military honour for valour in the Commonwealth countries of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
  • Since 2015, the annuity paid by the British Government to recipients of a VC is £10,000 per year, up from £1,495 per year in 2006 (Benedictus, 2006). This is exempted from tax for British taxpayers by Section 638 Income Tax (Earnings and Pensions) Act 2003, along with pensions or annuities from other awards for bravery.
  • Between 1861 and 1908, eight VC’s were forfeited.
  • One VC is in existence that is not counted in any official records. In 1856, Queen Victoria laid the first Victoria Cross beneath the foundation stone of Netley Military hospital. When the hospital was demolished in 1966 the VC, known as ‘The Netley VC’, was retrieved and is now on display in the Army Medical Services Museum, Mytchett, near Aldershot.
  • A single company of jewellers, Hancocks of London, has been responsible for the production of every VC awarded since its inception.
  • The original (1856) specification for the award stated that the ribbon should be red for army recipients and dark blue for naval recipients. However the dark blue ribbon was abolished soon after the formation of the Royal Air Force on 01 April 1918. On 22 May 1920 King George V signed a warrant that stated all recipients would now receive a red ribbon and the living recipients of the naval version were required to exchange their ribbons for the new colour. Although the Army warrants state the colour as being red it is defined by most commentators as being crimson or “wine-red”.

3.2     The George Cross

The George Cross (GC) is the premier non-operational gallantry award given for:

“For acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger.”

The GC is awarded for non-operational gallantry or gallantry not in the presence of an enemy. This is awarded for acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger. It may be awarded to all ranks of the Services and civilians, and can be awarded posthumously. Individuals who perform a further act of such gallantry which would have merited a second award of the GC would be issued with a bar. The GC is intended primarily for civilians and military personnel for actions for which purely military honours are not normally granted. The MOD Medal Office does not issue this award.

The GC was instituted on 24 September 1940 and named after King George VI, who personally designed many of the details of the award. It is made from solid silver by the Royal Mint with the inscription “For Gallantry”, a traditional word for bravery, which is surrounded by an image of St George slaying the dragon.

Previous medals converted to the GC include:

  • The Albert Medal (AM) was instituted on 07 March 1866, and named after Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert. It was awarded for great bravery while saving someone else’s life either at sea or on land. 570 AM’s had been awarded when, from 21st October 1971 award of the AM ceased. Surviving holders of the medal were required to exchange their medals for the GC and from 21st October 1971 were entitled to add the initials “GC” instead of “AM” after their names.
  • The Edward Medal (EM) was instituted in 1907, and named after King Edward VII. It was awarded to people who risked their own lives in order to help or save others caught in serious industrial accidents, particularly in coal mines. 584 Edward Medals had been awarded by 1971 when it was decided to change all EM’s into GC’s.
  • The Empire Gallantry Medal (EGM) was instituted in 1922. It was awarded to people who showed great bravery when facing danger in ordinary life. All EGM’s were changed into GC’s in 1941.

Some interesting facts:

  • Between 1940 and 2011, 406 people have been awarded the GC.
    Excluding policemen, just over one third of recipients have been civilians.
  • 161 GC were awarded directly, with 86 posthumously, and including collective awards to Malta and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC, now Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI)).
  • 245 other awards have been converted to a GC:
    • 112 EGM in 1941.
    • 65 AM in 1971.
    • 68 EM in 1971.
  • The youngest direct recipient of the GC was 15-year old John Bamford who rescued his brothers from a house fire in 1952.
  • The oldest recipient of the GC was 57-year old John Axon, a British Rail engine driver, who died trying to stop a runaway train in 1957.
  • Up to 2011, 11 women have received the GC, four directly and seven after being changed from either the AM or EGM.
  • The most recent woman to receive the GC was Barbara Harrison, an air stewardess, who died rescuing passengers after an air crash at Heathrow in 1968.
  • The royal warrant states recipients are entitled to a special pension paid by the British government for life, which in 1965 was £100 per year, and from 1995 was £1,300 per year. Although from 1995, a recipient could request a lump sum of £6,000 in place of the yearly sum.
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