The Victoria Cross: Representing Valour and British Values, 1857 to 1918

Updated on March 16, 2019
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John is a historian and researcher interested in the relation between war and society.

The Victoria Cross - this simple medal is the highest award for military valour in Great Britain
The Victoria Cross - this simple medal is the highest award for military valour in Great Britain | Source

Introduction

By the early 19th century, Britain was awarding medals to its soldiers and sailors to recognize their participation in military campaigns. The issuing of medals for acts of valour to anyone beyond officers or members of the established elite was, however, not practiced. In contrast to most European states of the period, such as France and Prussia, Britain was one the last to institute an order of military merit that would recognize the military exploits of the common man. The Victoria Cross was to change this for Britain, and in 1857, the newly established medal would be awarded to military members regardless of rank.

Military historians, numismatists, and medal enthusiasts have produced the majority of the historical works regarding the medal, but few explore in detail its evolution in context to social and political changes, and indeed the evolution of warfare itself. The awarding of medals for military achievements reveals a great deal about the culture and the society that issues them. Who best controls the awards process wields power and influence, and the distribution of awards is often politically and emotionally charged, frequently attracting both praise and criticism; such, as we shall see, was the case for the Victoria Cross.

Some historians have argued that the medal became a tool of the emerging bourgeois elite to denounce the inadequacies of the aristocratic military establishment following the Crimean War, while elevating lower classes to new levels of distinction.[1] Established near the height of the British Empire, was the medal another ornament of British imperialism?[2] If so, by the end of the First World War, did it represent something else?

Victoria Cross Medals being cast in 1945, similarly to the early medals of 1857 - film by British Pathé

Medals for Valor in 19th century Europe

There is limited historiography on the specific subject of medals, and the main problem with any serious study of the Victoria Cross is that it lacks a significant body of published knowledge. The deeds that accompany the medal are themselves thrilling, but studies have been limited by failing to put the medal in context. Consequently, there are numerous reference books on recipients of the medal, military histories placing the medal in context of battles and campaigns, and works broadly defined as ‘jingoistic patriotism’.[3]

One of the earliest histories of the Victoria Cross falls very much into the latter category. Published in 1865, The Victoria Cross: An Official Chronicle, was compiled while the medal was still very new. It provided not only a chronological narrative of each recipient to date, but insights into Victorian Britain’s ideas of class and a romantic yearning for recipient of the medal to be imbued with chivalric values.[4] Michael J. Crook was the first historian to examine the Victoria Cross by a different method. He studied in detail the evolution of the medal from its inception to the 1970s, when his work was written, through his research into government archives.

This unique approach broke from the traditional narratives of military campaigns, usually written by retired military officers, and sought to provide a definitive chronicle of the administrative changes the medal experienced over time. Joany Hichberger provided an interesting approach to scrutinizing the Victoria Cross through examination of the Victoria Cross series of paintings by Louis Desanges, commissioned for display in the Crystal Palace from 1859 to 1862, providing a highly romanticized portrayal of some of its recipients.[5] Her argument was that the Victoria Cross became a tool for the rising upper middle class and bourgeois elite whereby to attack the aristocracy as unfit for leadership of the army following the Crimean War.[6]

Ground breaking as perhaps the paintings were in their artistic representation of common men as soldiers and heroes, which roles had traditionally been the preserve of the aristocracy, Hichberger suggests the paintings did little to influence the middle classes in spite of the insistence of Desanges’ contemporaries. The Victoria Cross paintings were anti- democratic in that it relegated working-class heroism into the category of feudal service which was very much in keeping with Victorian values.[7]

Sergeant Luke O'Conner Winning the Victoria Cross at the Battle of Alma (1854). Oil by Louis William Desanges.
Sergeant Luke O'Conner Winning the Victoria Cross at the Battle of Alma (1854). Oil by Louis William Desanges. | Source

Other works include Richard Vinen who offered a different slant in his article on the Cross, juxtaposing the medal with changing ideas of class, race and definitions of courage in British society.[8] Finally, Melvin C. Smith examined the Victoria Cross and how its evolution represented and defined British military heroism. This work perhaps is the closest in considering the medal outside of an explicitly military history slant. Smith’s work, however, focuses very much on using the medal in assessing how the British definition of heroism on the battlefield evolved as a consequence of the conduct and evolution of warfare as well as external societal factors. This article will not provide another examination of the Victoria Cross from its inception to the present day or provide any detailed narrative of specific campaigns or battles, rather in this essay, I will examine what the Victoria Cross symbolised at the time of its inception and how its representation had changed by the end of the First World War.

Victorian Values versus Victorian Valor

Let’s first examine some of the British values of the late Victorian period significant to the medal at the time of its inception.

The Victoria Cross was instituted in February of 1857 following some years of debate over the recognition of military merit. The medal, as detailed through the publishing of the Victoria Cross warrant officially in The London Gazette, would be a prize to be coveted by men of all ranks:

‘…we have instituted and created, and by these presents, for us, our heirs and successors institute and create a new naval and military decoration, which we are desirous should be highly prized and eagerly sought after by the officers and men of our naval and military services…’

— The London Gazette, Tuesday, February 5, 1857, Issue 21846, 410-411.

The event which had propelled the early discussions over a period of years for the creation of an order of military merit, recognising the heroism of ordinary soldiers on an equal footing with their officers, was the Crimean War. In 19th century Britain, the Victorians embarked on campaigns of social reform attacking what they perceived to be injustice, social and otherwise, in their society. The Crimean War later proved a deciding factor in the eventual reform of the Army later by the Gladstone Government in the Cardwell Reforms of 1868.

During the war, reporters like William H. Russell, correspondent for The Times on the scene in the Crimea, provided the British public with vivid dispatches which showed British forces plagued by blundering generals, such as at Balaclava, and poor conditions in the field. The public read further about the conditions of military hospitals, inadequate supplies, and the high mortality rate of its soldiers due to disease and poor sanitation.[9]

Despite these conditions, the British soldier’s image improved, especially when the public read about episodes such as Inkerman, the reputed ‘soldier’s battle’, fought under close contact in poor visibility with little command and control by the generals; 19 Victoria Crosses were awarded later for this action.[10] Seemingly, public esteem, or at least sympathy for, the army soldier since the Crimean War was much improved as The Times in 1856 cited an opinion article of the much abused soldier of the late war:

‘It is quite clear, however, that any hostility which may have existed in bygone days towards the army has long passed away. The red coat of the soldier is honoured throughout the country’

— The Times, Wednesday, October 22, 1856, Issue 22505, 6.
Queen Victoria presenting VC in Hyde Park on 26 June 1857
Queen Victoria presenting VC in Hyde Park on 26 June 1857 | Source

During the war, British soldiers had no medal recognizing their bravery, but fought alongside the French with their Legion d’Honneur. The public seemed convinced that it was time such a medal to be awarded. What the medal was to represent however, was not merely recognition of military merit or valour restricted to the battlefield.

In a spectacle at Hyde Park in June of 1857, designed in part to convey the link of the monarch to her soldiers, Queen Victoria personally decorated veterans of the Crimean War before an audience of military spectators, and those of the public who managed to observe it in the summer heat. This first public glimpse of the medal, if the report from The Times is trustworthy, failed to impress:

‘Than the Cross of Valour nothing could be more plain and homely, not to say coarse looking. It is a very small Maltese Cross, formed from the gun-metal of ordnance captured at Sebastopol. In the centre is a small crown and lion, with which latter’s natural proportions of mane and tail the cutting very much interferes. Below these, is a small scroll (which shortens three arms of the cross and is utterly out of keeping with the upper portions) bearing the words “For Valour”…the whole cross is, after all, poor looking and mean in the extreme.’[11]

Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Consort to Queen Victoria who was much involved in the design of the Victoria Cross.   Portrait by Winterhalter, 1859
Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Consort to Queen Victoria who was much involved in the design of the Victoria Cross. Portrait by Winterhalter, 1859 | Source

If the medal was not aesthetically pleasing, it therefore had to represent values which were in keeping with views of the British people. In this case, these values were those defined primarily by the upper classes. The medal did finally, as The Times also cited on the occasion of the Hyde Park ceremony, reward the common soldier for his contributions on the battlefield in a way existing medals did not:

‘The old and much abused campaign medal may now be looked upon as a reward, but it will cease to be sought after as a distinction, for a new order is instituted - an order for merit and valour, open, without regards to rank or title…The old spirit of exclusiveness, which, while limiting the Order of the Bath to field-officers only, yet dissipated its honours on the whole staff, may be considered to have terminated when policemen and parkkeepers, officers and privates, captains and foremost sailors stood side by side in the presence of their Sovereign to receive at her hands that high reward for deeds which all had earned alike.’[12]

It may be a fallacy, however, to assume that the creation of such medal had such democratic intentions entirely in mind. If a common soldier was to receive the medal, however, this did not elevate him beyond his station in life but instead marked him as an individual who best embodied idealized Victorian values. The 1865 ‘Official Guide’ addressed the problem of how to classify private soldiers who stepped outside the parameters of their class by winning the Victoria Cross:

‘The private, graced with such a distinction, is no longer a plebeian. He is not one of the multitude. Even if his social and military rank should remain unchanged, he is raised morally much above his former self.'

— The Victoria Cross; An Official Chronicle. vii.

Hierarchy was an inherent component in British society and the empire, and was arguably an important factor in creating a sense of homogeneity and instilling a common British value system. This vision of the empire was encouraged and promoted, and one such way was by the expansion and codification of the honours system.[13]

Victorian society was not only hierarchical but idealized virtue.  The period saw a proliferation of honours and medals, harkening to highly idealized and romantic ideals of Medieval Europe - Chivalry, by Frank Dicksee 1885
Victorian society was not only hierarchical but idealized virtue. The period saw a proliferation of honours and medals, harkening to highly idealized and romantic ideals of Medieval Europe - Chivalry, by Frank Dicksee 1885 | Source

Linking Valor to Faithful Service

By the mid-19th century, during this period of expanding empire, British society experienced a proliferation of titles and honours. These honours, traditionally the keep of the landed elite, were an important and personal connection with the monarch. The acceptance of an honour did not merely elevate someone in the social and imperial hierarchy; it also put them formally in a direct, and subordinate, relation to the monarch as seen in the case of the Hyde Park ceremony.[14] The medal was, after all, called the Victoria Cross which by name inferred that personal connection to the Queen. The Queen was involved in decisions on its conferment and bestowal and the institution of the medal represented her personal desire for a connection to the military which was being eroded gradually through government reform.[15]

The concept of chivalry, popular with the Victorians, was also appropriated in the 19th century from a mythical medieval heritage by a broad range of political and social groups, and used to reinforce conservative, progressive, elitist, and egalitarian ideas.[16] During the 19th century, the upper and middle classes had been increasingly encouraged to believe that to fight in a just cause was one of the most desirable and honourable activities open to man, and that there was no more glorious fate than to die for one’s country.[17] Representative of this sentiment, and furthermore how it was being used to promote these values in British youth, was in an 1867 publication by S.O. Beeton about the Victoria Cross, compiled largely from his articles about the medal in his Boy’s Own Magazine:

‘The Victoria Cross is as much to a soldier as the gage d’amour the knight-errant in the days of chivalry received from his lady-love, and swore never to part with. The pledge of her affection might be a soiled and tattered glove, worth even less than the cross “For Valour”, but it was dearer to her lover than life itself.’[18]

Highly idealized, the Victoria Cross, at this early stage, was a representation of the best qualities of the British soldier, and by extension the values of British people. Courage was taken for granted as the essential traditional characteristic of British military officers and this view carried over into the Victorian era.[19] If courage was traditionally an upper class trait, even if considered a personal quality although not strictly belonging in the public domain, the Victoria Cross could bridge the social gap by declaring a common soldier a courageous man and hero in a public setting and was a tangible representation of that courage.

Lt Francis Farquharson of the 42nd 'Black Watch', winning his Victoria Cross at the Battle of Lucknow, 1858 by Louis William Desanges
Lt Francis Farquharson of the 42nd 'Black Watch', winning his Victoria Cross at the Battle of Lucknow, 1858 by Louis William Desanges | Source

The early medals awarded retroactively for the Crimean War, and later for the Indian Mutiny, also demonstrate how the Victoria Cross was used to highlight positive aspects of poorly executed wars and campaigns, despite victory, in the valorous contributions of its soldiers. More Victoria Crosses were awarded amongst the 30,000 British troops suppressing the Indian Mutiny of 1857, particularly at Lucknow, than amongst the many millions of men who served in the years of the Second World War.[20] As a vindication of British values, the medal showed British soldiers could fight, prevail, and represented what the British perceived to be the best parts of their character. As a tool for the War Office and the government, it could be used to patch up a bad situation which remained reoccurring theme later in the wars of empire.

The Victoria Cross: An Imperial Medal?

The Victoria Cross was perhaps most significant as an imperial medal. Historians have defined the late Victorian era as a period that saw the British Empire expand and ultimately reach its pinnacle. Besides those of the Crimean War, almost all the Victoria Crosses awarded before 1914 were given for actions in wars on the frontiers of the British Empire.

These wars, termed by one historian as ‘Queen Victoria’s Little Wars’, were conducted at the edges of the British empire against foes which could be described as non-traditional, meaning that medals were awarded to British soldiers for fighting Afghans, Indians and Africans vice European infantry regiments.[21] From 1837 to 1901, British troops were engaged in almost constant combat in Queen Victoria’s long reign, and it was in the Victorian era, in part through this process of continuous warfare, the empire quadrupled.[22]

Under Queen Victoria's reign from 1837 to 1901, Great Britain would nearly quadruple in size, but also in world influence. Portrait by Winterhalter, 1859
Under Queen Victoria's reign from 1837 to 1901, Great Britain would nearly quadruple in size, but also in world influence. Portrait by Winterhalter, 1859 | Source

The Zulu War is characteristic of such an imperial war of this period. The war began with the dubious claim of alleged encroachment by the Zulus on British territory in Africa.[23] The invasion of Zululand, generally regarded by the public to be a simple exercise, soon faced disasters. Lord Chelmsford, the commander-in-chief, established his camp at Isandlwana on the 20th of January 1879. During the next three days, a British battalion and the camp of the main column was annihilated by a numerically superior and disciplined Zulu force armed with spears, while the small British frontier post at Rorke's Drift was successfully defended for several hours. The papers received both the news of the disaster at Isandlwana and the victory at Rorke’s Drift, along with the news of Victoria Crosses to be awarded. The Portsmouth Evening News captured the tone of many of these articles:

‘It was a right down gallant deed, and we had the very great pleasure in providing that portion of our own correspondent’s dispatch which expressed hope that they would, every man of them, receive that decoration which all true soldiers value so highly – the badge of valour – The Victoria Cross.’

— The Evening News, Portsmouth, Friday, February 21, 1879, Issue 565, 2.

As further details emerged, however, the war in Zululand was criticized in Parliament and the radical press. The honour of British officers was questioned and there were suggestions of the systematic murder of prisoners, burning of homes, and starvation of women and children; all very much in contrast to Victorian ideals of chivalry.[24]

For Disraeli's government, anything that minimized the impact of Isandlwana was politically invaluable, and the government’s response would later establish the war as a recurrent theme in British popular culture for the next century and more. Eleven Victoria Crosses were issued for Rorke’s Drift, the most ever received in a single action by one regiment.[25] The bravery and fortitude displayed at Rorke’s Drift was therefore in a way a vindication for the army, but the mass awarding of the Victoria Cross did not escape criticism even from contemporaries. One such critic was General Garnet Wolseley, stating:

“it is monstrous making heroes of those who, shut up in buildings at Rorke's Drift, could not bolt and fought like rats for their lives, which they could not otherwise save".

— Quoted from Lieven, “Heroism”, 429.
The Defence of Rorke's Drift by Lady Butler (1880)
The Defence of Rorke's Drift by Lady Butler (1880) | Source

Some historians challenging this assertion suggest that the victory at Rorke’s Drift should be recognized on its own merits, regardless of other concerns. Victor D. Hanson stated:

‘Modern critics suggest such lavishness in commendation was designed to assuage the disaster at Isandlwana and to reassure a sceptical Victorian public that the fighting ability of the British soldier remained unquestioned. Maybe, maybe not, but in the long annals of military history, it is difficult to find anything quite like Rorke's Drift, where a beleaguered force, outnumbered forty to one, survived and killed twenty men for every defender lost’.[26]

Field Marshal Lord Wolseley was a noted critic of individual awards for valor.
Field Marshal Lord Wolseley was a noted critic of individual awards for valor. | Source

The number of medals awarded after Rorke's Drift raised the affair above the normal run of small imperial actions. Michael Lieven has cited the significance of Rorke’s Drift in the imperial British landscape:

‘There can be no doubt about the courage of those who defended the mission station…Nor, in the circumstances, does one need to propose theories of a conspiracy between the government and the press in Britain to account for the tone of the reporting. Sheer relief that something had gone right after the catastrophe of Isandlwana is enough to explain the outpouring of sentiment. Since then the story tellers and historians have, in general, been content simply to amplify the earlier myths. Rorke' s Drift has become a national legend, repeated in a range of popular cultural productions...So well established was the myth that in this case it was picked up and retold even by professional historians.’[27]

Measuring Valor: Deeds versus Values

Begun over the issuing of a medal, this debate has survived to this day thus reinforcing the political and emotional sensitivities of prize distribution stated previously. The debate, as it regards the Victoria Cross, is about its role as a social object, the legitimacy it retains, and as a representation of cultural values and beliefs.[28]

Its valuation in the presence of its audience, at this period the Victorian public and the army, was arguably being manipulated by both the government and senior army officers putting the best face possible on the disastrous events of the war and less than honourable conduct of the army in the field. The soldiers who fought and defended themselves from Zulu attacks were undeniably brave, but medals instituted and awarded by governments can be used as a political tool, and Rorke’s Drift remains one of the best examples.

If the public had found horror in the news of Zulus wiping out a British army, they could find the solace they craved that British manhood was still strong and the Victoria Cross affirmed this. At this point, the Victoria Cross was established firmly as an ornament of British military campaigns for the sake of the empire and its progress. The medal represented at this time the better part of the struggles of the empire, perhaps soothing a troubling vision of an empire which saw British soldiers slaughtering hordes of Zulus. Within a few years, the Boer War was to challenge what this vision of empire should be and prove a harbinger of modern warfare.

Depiction of the Battle of Omdurman (1898), by Robert Caton Woodville - this type of colonial warfare common to the British in the C19th, was in its decline by Omdurman. Modern warfare was on its way.
Depiction of the Battle of Omdurman (1898), by Robert Caton Woodville - this type of colonial warfare common to the British in the C19th, was in its decline by Omdurman. Modern warfare was on its way. | Source

The Victoria Cross and the Boer War

A popular representation of the Boer War is that of the last Victorian War, not just of the Queen’s reign but of those for the empire where the British army would fight yet another non-traditional foe. The Boers were not regarded as a serious enemy, and very few supposed that the war would be anything but an easily won contest.[29] The Boer War has been regarded, however, by some historians such as Steve Attridge as the first modern war straddling the 19th and 20th centuries.[30] The Victoria Cross experienced a number of changes which reflected the changing values behind the empire and the external forces of the evolving nature of warfare.

Britain’s initial involvement in the Boer Wars was not without challenge and some imperial soul searching.[31] The heroics of earlier Victoria Crosses struggled to manifest themselves as they had in previous conflicts. There were few open battles with the Boers, who armed with superb modern weapons, adapted to their terrain and used stand-off guerrilla tactics; the British struggled to adapt despite superior numbers.

In mid-December 1899, during the Second Boer War, the British army suffered three consecutive defeats in the opening phase of the war. The battle of Colenso, once such British defeat at the hands of the Boers, saw a disastrous attempt to retrieve artillery pieces lost to the enemy in exposed terrain. General Buller following the battle, submitted awards for men who had been mortally wounded.

This was an unprecedented action, as the original warrant prohibited this which eventually prompted a thorough revision of its standards and regulations and a Victorian belief that such heroes had to be living.[32] The medal could now, and increasingly so during the Boer War, be issued posthumously.

Colenso was a British disaster, but resulted in the awarding of some of the first posthumous Victoria Crosses
Colenso was a British disaster, but resulted in the awarding of some of the first posthumous Victoria Crosses | Source

During the Boer War, the medal struggled to match its early representation as a symbol of the empire. The actions justifying the awarding the Cross increasingly shifted towards war-winning actions, not simply for displays of heroism. The Boer War, due to its unfamiliar and to the British unconventional nature, was despite victory an unpleasant experience to be forgotten. Particularly so among the officers, gentlemen first and officers a long way second, these notable warriors could hardly be described as professional careerists, an opinion that the highly critical committees of inquiry in the aftermath of the Boer War did much to endorse. For most officers of this period, soldiering was still primarily concerned with polo and parties; good breeding and good manners mattered much more than rigorous training or technical expertise. There was an overwhelming desire to re-establish soldiering as a gentleman’s occupation.[33]

Reappraising Valor in a World War

A lesson of the Boer War, that the combination of trench warfare with modern rifles and machine guns was likely to result in a long and cruel stalemate, had seemingly escaped almost everyone in the British Army. If the military experts believed that war with Germany would be a brief affair of a few knock-out and decisive battles, ordinary people could scarcely be blamed for thinking the same.

At the start of the war, few officers at least in the army in fact had any experience of war at all. Nothing therefore might stop them thinking of this new war in terms of their education; war was glory, honour, and cavalry charges.[34] The Boer War had cost the nation some £20 million pounds, international opinion had opposed the war and voices at home were critical. The war had shown the British were not invincible but still a powerful nation, and many believed the most powerful nation; what did that mean?[35] In 1914, there was no need for this kind of hesitation since Germany, at last, was an equal opponent.[36]

The duration of the First World War, its ferocity, the loss of life, the ‘machine like’ killing, left little place for chivalry and similar heroics, or the utility thereof. To the great majority of the millions fighting, the common soldiers, the romantic ideology of chivalry meant nothing. Before the war, the purging or ennobling effect of war had been written about extensively by numerous poets such as Scott, Tennyson, and Newbolt.[37] But the belief that war was glorious or somehow ennobling, seldom survived a few months at the front.[38]

It was during the First World War that the Victoria Cross sustained a campaign to preserve or distinguish its uniqueness as a medal of paramount value. Senior military officers and government officials created new medals for lesser acts of valour. In part, this was to distinguish lesser forms or feats of valour from the Cross, but also served to separate the officer classes from the common soldier.

The weapons of warfare at the start of the 20th Century were changing with more lethal consequences - Mark II tank with Canadian infantry at Vimy Ridge, 1917
The weapons of warfare at the start of the 20th Century were changing with more lethal consequences - Mark II tank with Canadian infantry at Vimy Ridge, 1917 | Source

One such medal was the Military Cross, established in 1914 with junior officers in mind, and in 1916 the Military Medal for other ranks.[39] This distinction between officers and men, crosses for officers and medals for the ranks, put these new medals at odds with the socially egalitarian status of Victoria Cross.[40] This suggests that the idea officers and men could be recognized on equal footing was still unpalatable.

The human cost of Victorian era heroic feats increased dramatically the modern battlefield left no place for ‘Tommy Atkins’ to seize the enemy’s colours or a young public-school officer to rally the broken square against Sudanese dervishes. Warfare itself had changed; such actions were no less brave but out of place in modern warfare.

Instituted in 1914, The Military Cross (MC). Awarded to all ranks of the RN, RM, Army, and RAF in recognition of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy on land.
Instituted in 1914, The Military Cross (MC). Awarded to all ranks of the RN, RM, Army, and RAF in recognition of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy on land. | Source

Consequently, finding opportunity to celebrate feats of bravery juxtaposed against traditional Victorian values of the Cross increasingly diminished and therefore became anachronistic. The industrial-scale warfare exceeded the wildest dreams and darkest nightmares of the Victorian concept. The magnitude of the bloodletting made all previous wars pale in comparison.[41]

This new type of warfare, with anonymous death and seemingly futile individual sacrifices, forced a re-examination of what the medal was to represent. Once the stalemate of the Western Front fully developed, the war became a contest of attrition which merely required soldiers to kill the enemy in a positive ratio to their own losses:

‘a consumptive machine gunner, too scared in an attack to bolt, can sit in a lucky hole and scupper a company of the best as they advance. Courage isn’t what it used to be. The machine runs over us and we can’t stop it.’

— Smith, Heroism, 204.
A Vickers machine gun crew in action at the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, September 1917
A Vickers machine gun crew in action at the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, September 1917 | Source

The First World War fundamentally changed what the Victoria Cross was meant to represent. The war needed killers, not mere soldiers, whose actions impacted the tide of battles. By the end of the war, the aggressive, man-killing hero had become the British paradigm of the First World War.[42] Clearly, notions of what constituted courage had changed.[43]

If the Victoria Cross was meant to represent heroism, the criteria had changed since the imperial wars of the last century. If it were somehow able to elevate the common man, the upper classes and the military created more medals for valour in an effort not only to make the Victoria Cross special, but served to widen the gulf between officers and common soldiers.

For Bravery At Gallipoli - Vc For Corporal Bassett. (1915) by British Pathé

CONCLUSION

If the Victoria Cross was meant to represent heroism, the criteria had changed since the imperial wars of the last century. If it were somehow able to elevate the common man, the upper classes and the military created more medals for valour in an effort not only to make the Victoria Cross special, but served to widen the gulf between officers and common soldiers.

But class origin, seemingly from the experience of the trenches, also failed to be a key factor in determining a recipient, nor indeed any attempt to attach the medal to a romantic ideology such as chivalry. Notions of chivalry were anachronistic, the medal had ceased to be an ornament of the empire’s old ideals. The war was not without its own disastrous battles with mass casualties, such as the Somme. The scale and mass numbers involved in the battles of the war, particularly in the prolonged stalemate of the Western Front, produced high numbers of casualties. The Victoria Cross was to represent by this time, military heroism and valour in perhaps its purest form since its inception.

Queen Victoria died in 1901, signalling the end of one era of British life and the beginning of a modern one

The Cross was initially a product of a social climate that was receptive even eager for a national egalitarian gallantry award, juxtaposed against Victorian chivalric ideology, ideals of personal responsibility and self-improvement, and the elevation of common men. It also reflected an increasing desire for the British, especially the middle class, to be seen as progressive but also courageous; if a French soldier could be recognized in the press and the government as brave, a British soldier deserved this honour as well.

At the time of inception, the Queen and Consort craved a new link to replace their perceived loss of influence with an army facing reforms at the end of the Crimean War; the medal served as an inexpensive remedy. At the peak of the empire, the medal represented an ornament that was the capstone of military expeditions, sometimes of mixed results and reputation, and also manipulated by government politics and military institutions.

Victoria Cross as it appears on Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstones.
Victoria Cross as it appears on Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstones. | Source

By the end of the First World War, warfare had evolved and the medal was forced to change from the external pressures of the war. In the process, the medal had transcended the romantic ideals and the political motives it once had, and became what it may have been intended for in the first place. It represented a singular act of valour, an award for military valour by soldiers fighting under extraordinary circumstances.

Fewer awards of the medal occurred following the Second World War, although not for lack of conflict but due to the changes in both the awarding criteria and, as demonstrated, what this medal was meant to represent. More recent British operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have remained divisive and controversial, yet there is little evidence of the few Victoria Crosses awarded in these wars being used a political tool. This representation, formed by the end of the First World War, is that which survives today.

Notes on Sources

1) Joany Hichberger makes this point a central part of her article on the Victoria Cross paintings by Louis Desanges. Joany Hichberger, “Democratising Glory? The Victoria Cross Paintings of Louis Desanges”, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1984, 42.

2) In referencing the Victoria Cross as an ‘ornament’ of empire, I have used this term from David Cannadine. While Cannadine does not specifically address the Victoria Cross in detail in his work, the use of this term here is appropriate to the suggestion that the medal was instituted in a period where Victorian Britain saw an increased number of new orders, titles, and medals created, as well as their proliferation. David Cannadine, Ornamentalism: How The British Saw Their Empire, (London: The Penguin Press, 2001).

3) The latter term I have used, ‘jingoistic patriotism’, was used by Melvin C. Smith in his work on the Victoria Cross to define some of the existing bodies of work on the medal. Melvin Charles Smith, Awarded For Valour: A History of the Victoria Cross and the Evolution of British Heroism, (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), 2.

4) The Victoria Cross; An Official Chronicle of the Deeds of Personal Valour Achieved in the Presence of the Enemy during the Crimean and Baltic Campaigns, the Indian Mutinies and the Persia, China, and New Zealand Wars, (London: O’Byrne Brothers, 1865). vii.

5) Hichberger, “Democratising”, 42.

6) Ibid, 42.

7) Ibid, 50.

8) Richard Vinen, “The Victoria Cross”, History Today, (December 2006): 50-57.

9) Emmeline W. Cohen, The Growth of the British Civil Service, 1780-1939, (London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd. 1965). 110.

10) Bryan Perrett. For Valour, (London: The Orion Publishing Group Ltd., 2003) 34.

11) The Times, Saturday, Jun 27, 1857, Issue 22718, 5.

12) The Times , Friday, 26 June 1857, Issue 22717, 7.

13) Cannadine, Ornaments, 85.

14) Ibid, 100.

15) Smith, Awarded, 39.

16) Mark Girouard, The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman, (London: Yale University Press, 1981) 32-33.

17) Ibid, 276

18) S.O. Beeton, Our Soldier’s and the Victoria Cross, (London: Ward, Lock & Tyler, 1867) 7

19) Michael Lieven, “Heroism, Heroics and the Making of Heroes: The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879”, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3, Autumn 1998, 419.

20) Vinen, The Victoria Cross, 51, 55. There were # medals awarded in the Indian Mutiny, the largest number of VCs given in a single day was for actions during the relief of the siege of Lucknow on November 16th, 1857. A total of # VCs were awarded during all of the Second World War.

21) ‘Queen Victoria’s Little Wars’ was a term used by Byron Farwell in his book of the same name. Byron Farwell, Queen Victoria’s Little Wars, (London: Penguin Books, 1973).

22) Farwell, Queen Victoria’s, 1.

23) Ibid, 224.

24) Lieven, “Heroism”, 420.

25) Perrett, For Valour, 124-125.

26) Victor Davis Hanson, Why The West Has Won, (London: Faber & Faber, Ltd., 2001) 333.

27) Lieven, “Heroism”, 430.

28) Cathryn Johnson, Timothy J. Dowd and Cecilia L. Ridgeway. “Legitimacy as a Social Process”, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 32, 2006, 57.

29) Steve Attridge, Nationalism, Imperialism and Identity in Late Victorian Culture, (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003) 1.

30) Ibid, 15.

31) Girouard, Chivalry, 282.

32) Smith, Heroism, 85-86

33) David Cannadine, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, (London: Yale University Press, 1990) 272.

34) Girouard. Chivalry, 282-283.

35) Attridge, Nationalism, 4.

36) Girouard, Chivalry, 282.

37) Ibid, 276.

38) Ibid, 290.

39) Vinen, “The Victoria Cross”, 51.

40) Today the Military Cross can be awarded to all ranks as part of the government review of gallantry awards conducted in 1993. Source MOD website, last updated 11 March 2015: https://www.gov.uk/medals-campaigns-descriptions-and-eligibility#military-cross.

41) Smith, Heroism, 204.

42) Ibid, 204.

43) Ibid, 51.

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    © 2019 John Bolt

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