In the last few years there have been 3 awards to Australian military personnel of the Victoria Cross, the highest military award for valour in the face of the enemy. The most recent award was last week. I recalled hearing, many years ago, that the medals were made from cannon seized in the Crimean War but I knew little else about the award. Some research came up with interesting facts . . .
- The Victoria Cross is awarded to members of the armed forces of various Commonwealth countries and previous British Empire territories, of any rank in any of the services and to civilians under military command.
- Since 1990, three Commonwealth countries that retain the Queen as head of state, which includes Australia, have instituted their own versions of the Victoria Cross. As a result the original Victoria Cross is sometimes referred to as the "Commonwealth Victoria Cross" or the "Imperial Victoria Cross", to distinguish it from the newer awards.
- With the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854, Britain found itself engaged in a war against Russia after 40 years of peace. There was no standardised system of awards for gallantry, officers being eligible for the Order of the Bath and lesser officers for mention is despatches, plus promotions known as brevet promotions. In 1856, at approximately the same time as the end of the Crimean War, Queen Victoria authorised the creation of a new award that was independent of birth, class, rank, years of service and branch of service It was backdated to 1854 to recognise gallantry during the Crimean war. Intended to be simple in design, notwithstanding its supreme significance, Victoria vetoed the suggested name The Military Order of Victoria, preferring the simpler Victoria Cross.
- At the first award ceremony in 1857 in Hyde Park, Victoria awarded 62 of the 111 Crimean War recipients.
- Although commonly believed that the VC awards were made from bronze parts of two cannon captured from the Russians at the siege of Sevastapol, historian John Glanfield has proven by x rays of older VC medals that netal used was in fact from antique Chinese cannon. It has been speculated that the guns had been captured from the Chinese by the Russians and hence their use at Sevastapol.
- The front of the medal bears the simple words “For valour”. The original recommendation had been that the wording read “For the brave” but Victoria likewise vetoed this proposal insofar as it suggested that only Victoria Cross recipients were brave.
- The criteria for the award is “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.”
- The 1856 specification for the award directed that the ribbon of the medal be red for army recipients and blue for naval recipients. After the formation of the Royal Air Force in 1918, King George V signed warrant that all recipients would now receive medals with red ribbons. Living recipients with blue ribbons had theirs changed to red.
- In 1867 the Victoria Cross was extended to colonial troops. In that year Major Charles Heaphy received the award for action in the New Zealand land wars. Subsequent awards for colonial troops established the principle that recipients could receive an award even when operating independently of British troops. Hence 4 Victoria Crosses were awarded to Australian soldiers in Vietnam, even though Britain was not part of the conflict.
- The original warrant creating the awards contains provision for the award to be forfeited. Eight Victoria Cross recipients have had their awards forfeited between 1861 and 1908 for various reasons: theft from fellow military personnel, bigamy, embezzlement and desertion. In 1920 King George V’s private secretary relayed the King’s strong opposition to forfeiture: “The King feels so strongly that, no matter the crime committed by anyone on whom the VC has been conferred, the decoration should not be forfeited. Even were a VC to be sentenced to be hanged for murder, he should be allowed to wear his VC on the scaffold.” No forfeitures have taken police since 1908.
- In 1991 Australia became the first Commonwealth country to institute a Victoria Cross award of its own. It is known as the Victoria Cross for Australia. It is identical in appearance to the British Victoria Cross. Canada established its own award in 1993 and New Zealand in 1999.
- The Victoria Cross for Australia is awarded for “most conspicuous gallantry, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy or belligerents.”
- Australians have been awarded the Victoria Cross in the following conflicts:
6 in the Boer War 1899-1902
64 in World War I 1914-1918
2 in North Russia 1919
20 in World War II 1939-1945
4 in Vietnam 1962-1972
Nine of the crosses awarded in World War I were for Australians at Gallipoli.
- The last Australian to be awarded the Imperial Victoria Cross was Warrant Officer Keith Payne for gallantry during the Vietnam War (24 May 1969). Under heavy enemy fire Payne instigated a daring rescue of more than forty men, many of them wounded, and led the party back to the battalion base.
- Ninety nine Australians have been awarded the Victoria Cross. Ninety six Australians have been awarded the Imperial Victoria Cross and three Australians have been awarded the Victoria Cross for Australia: Trooper Mark Donaldson (2009), Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith (2011) and Corporal Daniel Keighran (2012):
Trooper Mark Donaldson
Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith
Warrant Officer Keith Payne (VC awarded 1969), left, and Trooper Mark Donaldson (VC awarded 2009), right, with Corporal Daniel Keighran (VC awarded 2012), centre
- Although the Australian Army Ceremonial Manual states that "Victoria Cross winners, unless they are serving commissioned officers in the armed forces, are not saluted", traditionally VC winners in Australia are saluted by all ranks up to the highest. When Trooper Donaldson was presented his VC in 2009, defence force chief Angus Houston saluted him and said: "As the highest-ranking member of the defence force, there has been no current serving member that I salute, until now. Tradition holds that even the most senior officer will salute a Victoria Cross recipient as a mark of the utmost respect for their act of valour."