The Victoria Cross (VC) is the highest military decoration awarded for valour "in the face of the enemy" to members of the armed forces of various Commonwealth countries, and previous British Empire territories.〔 It is first in the order of wear in the United Kingdom honours system, and takes precedence over all other orders, decorations, and medals, including the Order of the Garter. It may be awarded to a person of any military rank in any service and to civilians under military command. The VC is usually presented to the recipient or to their next of kin by the British monarch at an investiture held at Buckingham Palace.
The VC was introduced on 29 January 1856 by Queen Victoria to honour acts of valour during the Crimean War. Since then, the medal has been awarded 1,358 times to 1,355 individual recipients. Only 15 medals, 11 to members of the British Army, and four to the Australian Army, have been awarded since the Second World War. The traditional explanation of the source of the metal from which the medals are struck is that it derives from Russian cannon captured at the Siege of Sevastopol. Some research suggested a variety of origins for the material actually making up the medals themselves.〔 Research has established that the metal for the medals came from two Chinese cannons〔(【引用サイトリンク】url=https://web.archive.org/web/20080215074157/http://www.royalnavalmuseum.org/collections_special.htm )〕 that were captured from the Russians in 1855.
Owing to its rarity, the VC is highly prized and the medal has fetched over £400,000 at auction.〔 A number of public and private collections are devoted to the Victoria Cross. The private collection of Lord Ashcroft, amassed since 1986, contains over one-tenth of all VCs awarded. Following a 2008 donation to the Imperial War Museum, the Ashcroft collection went on public display alongside the museum's Victoria and George Cross collection in November 2010.
Beginning with the Centennial of Confederation in 1967, Canada〔(Canadian Honours System )〕 followed in 1975 by Australia〔(Australian Honours System )〕 and New Zealand〔(New Zealand Honours System )〕 developed their own national honours systems, separate and independent of the British or Imperial honours system. As each country's system evolved, operational gallantry awards were developed with the premier award of each system, the VC for Australia, the Canadian VC and the VC for New Zealand being created and named in honour of the Victoria Cross. These are unique awards of each honours system, recommended, assessed, gazetted and presented by each country.
In 1854, after 39 years of peace, Britain found itself fighting a major war against Russia. The Crimean War was one of the first wars with modern reporting, and the dispatches of William Howard Russell described many acts of bravery and valour by British servicemen that went unrewarded.〔Ashcroft, Michael, Preface to Victoria Cross Heroes〕
Before the Crimean War, there was no official standardised system for recognition of gallantry within the British armed forces. Officers were eligible for an award of one of the junior grades of the Order of the Bath and brevet promotions while a Mention in Despatches existed as an alternative award for acts of lesser gallantry. This structure was very limited; in practice awards of the Order of the Bath were confined to officers of field rank.〔Original Warrant Foreword: '〕 Brevet promotions or Mentions in Despatches were largely confined to those who were under the immediate notice of the commanders in the field, generally members of the commander's own staff.〔British Gallantry Awards, p283〕
Other European countries had awards that did not discriminate against class or rank; France awarded the Légion d'honneur (Legion of Honour) and The Netherlands gave the Order of William. There was a growing feeling among the public and in the Royal Court that a new award was needed to recognise incidents of gallantry that were unconnected with a man's lengthy or meritorious service. Queen Victoria issued a Warrant under the Royal sign-manual on 29 January 1856〔〔 The Gazette publishing the original Royal Warrant〕 (gazetted 5 February 1856)〔 that officially constituted the VC. The order was backdated to 1854 to recognise acts of valour during the Crimean War.〔Ashcroft, Michael, p. 7–10〕
Queen Victoria had instructed the War Office to strike a new medal that would not recognise birth or class. The medal was meant to be a simple decoration that would be highly prized and eagerly sought after by those in the military services.〔(【引用サイトリンク】 title=The Victoria Cross )〕 To maintain its simplicity, Queen Victoria, under the guidance of Prince Albert, vetoed the suggestion that the award be called ''The Military Order of Victoria'' and instead suggested the name ''Victoria Cross''. The original warrant stated that the Victoria Cross would only be awarded to soldiers who have served in the presence of the enemy and had performed some signal act of valour or devotion.〔Original Warrant, Clause 5:'〕 The first ceremony was held on 26 June 1857 where Queen Victoria invested 62 of the 111 Crimean recipients in a ceremony in Hyde Park, London.〔
It was originally intended that the VCs would be cast from the cascabels of two cannon that were captured from the Russians at the siege of Sevastopol.〔〔 In 1990 Creagh and Ashton conducted a metallurgical examination of the VCs in the custody of the Australian War Memorial. Later, the historian John Glanfield,〔 wrote that, through the use of x-ray studies of older Victoria Crosses, it was determined that the metal used for VCs is from antique Chinese guns and not of Russian origin.〔〔 Theories abound. One theory is that the cannon were originally Chinese weapons but the Russians captured them and deployed them at Sevastopol. They are indeed Chinese cannon: Creagh 〔 noted the existence of Chinese inscriptions on the cannon which are now barely legible due to corrosion. It was also thought that some medals made during the First World War were composed of metal captured from different Chinese guns during the Boxer Rebellion. This is not so, however. The VCs examined by Creagh and Ashton 〔〔 both in Australia (58) and at the QE II Army Memorial Museum in New Zealand (14) 〔 spanned the entire time during which VCs have been issued and no compositional inconsistencies were found.〔 It was also believed that another source of metal was used between 1942 and 1945 to create five Second World War VCs when the Sevastopol metal "went missing".〔 Creagh 〔 accessed the Army records at MoD Donnington in 1991 and did not find any gaps in the custodial record. The composition found in the WW2 VCs, amongst them those for Edwards (Australia) and Upham (New Zealand), is similar to that for the early WW1 medals. This is likely to be due to the reuse of material from earlier pourings, casting sprues, defective medals, etc.
The barrels of the cannon in question are on display at Firepower - The Royal Artillery Museum at Woolwich. The remaining portion of the only remaining cascabel, weighing 358 oz (10 kg), is stored in a vault maintained by 15 Regiment Royal Logistic Corps at MoD Donnington. It can only be removed under armed guard. It is estimated that approximately 80 to 85 more VCs could be cast from this source. A single company of jewellers, Hancocks of London, has been responsible for the production of every VC awarded since its inception.〔(【引用サイトリンク】 title=Hancocks Jewellers )〕
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