A chance meeting en route to Tenerife by Steve James, secretary of the Blackpool Lodge of Sincerity No 4175 led to the brethren of the lodge and their guests being treated to a fascinating talk on the history of the Victoria Cross.
Former Coldstream guard and fellow Freemason Tony Ormiston enthralled his audience with a highly informative and entertaining dialogue on the VC, 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. Tony pointed out that the award 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 their next of kin by the British monarch at an investiture held at Buckingham Palace.
Delving into the number of VCs awarded since its inception, Tony revealed that the medal was introduced on 29 January 1856 by Queen Victoria to honour acts of valour during the Crimean War and since then, the VC has been awarded 1,358 times to 1,355 individual recipients, three people having been awarded the VC and Bar, the bar representing a second award of the VC. Of particular relevance to the brethren was that 106 of the recipients have been Freemasons.
Quoting many examples of courage beyond words, Tony vividly illustrated the truly amazing feats that have earned the VC. Officially the Victoria Cross is awarded for ‘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’. Only 15 medals, 11 to members of the British Army and four to the Australian Army have been awarded since the Second World War.
Dispelling the popular misconception that the source of the metal from which the medals are struck is from Russian cannon captured at the Siege of Sevastopol in 1854 during the Crimean War, Tony enlightened his audience by informing them that research has established that the metal for the medals in fact came from two Chinese cannon that were captured from the Russians in 1855.
According to Tony, it has been established that the remaining portion of the only remaining cascabel weighing 10kg will provide enough gun metal to enable only 80 to 84 more VCs to 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. Owing to its rarity, the VC is highly prized by collectors and one medal fetched over £400,000 at auction.
Apparently, as Tony informed the brethren, the award was originally to be called the Military Order of Victoria but under the guidance of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria vetoed the suggestion and instead wished it to be named the Victoria Cross.
Tony also enlightened the brethren on the widespread though erroneous belief that it is statutory for all ranks to salute a bearer of the Victoria Cross. He clarified the tradition by informing his audience that there is no official requirement that appears in the official warrant of the VC, nor in Queen’s Regulations and Orders, but that it is traditional that such due respect is shown. Consequently, the Chiefs of Staff will salute a Private awarded a Victoria Cross.
Tony’s talk was full of other fascinating facts and details of examples of outstanding bravery. He summed it up in probably the most poignant manner with: “All courage deserves respect; great courage deserves great respect.”
In thanking Tony for his excellent talk, master of the lodge Michael Joyner commented on the enormous knowledge of the subject that Tony had displayed, a sentiment echoed by grand officer Eric Picton in his response to the first rising.
There is no doubt that the brethren who were fortunate enough to be present for the talk found the experience highly informative and inspiring but, above all, humbling.
It just goes to show that chance meetings can have a profound impact on our knowledge and experiences and that we can never underestimate the value of declaring ourselves as Freemasons.