In awe of valour

It was in the quiet of evenfall that the companions of Senatores Chapter of Installed First Principals No 8966 steered their way to the doors of the Masonic hall in Blackpool, filled to the brim with expectancy of a stimulating and informative evening. They were not to be disappointed. The highlight of the convocation was a presentation entitled ‘For valour, the story of the Victoria Cross’ by Mark Smith, resident military medals expert for the BBC Antiques Roadshow programme.

Mark Smith (left) and John Thornber with George Hinckley’s Victoria Cross.

Mark Smith (left) and John Thornber with George Hinckley’s Victoria Cross.

“Gripping and highly entertaining” were the words of first principal Norman Thomas in summing up Mark’s presentation. Whilst these words were accurate in their description of the talk, to the vast majority of those present, they would be considered an understatement. It was exceptional, both in its content and the manner in which it was delivered.

From a very early age Mark has devoted himself sedulously to the study of military medals, a fact that is clearly evinced by his vast knowledge of the subject. Getting his presentation smoothly off the mark, he immediately relaxed his audience with humour and charm. Without the assistance of any notes or visual aids, Mark held his audience spell-bound while talking of the history of the Victoria Cross and relating tales of unimaginable courage and valour for which the recipients had been awarded this most prestigious of medals.

The Victoria Cross was born in 1854 in the carnage of the Crimean War, even though hostilities had ceased well before the first awards were made on 26 June 1857 at an award ceremony in Hyde Park in which Queen Victoria presented the first 62 Victoria Crosses in front of a cheering crowd of 100,000 people.

The Crimean Campaign was the first war to be covered by regular correspondents, especially by reporters as perceptive and critical as William Howard Russell of ‘The Times’ and photographer Roger Fenton. Under Russell’s scrutiny the errors of officers, their prejudices and rigid attitudes, did not go unnoticed. He reported the disgraceful shortages of proper clothing and equipment, the ravages of cholera and typhoid fever, which caused the deaths of 20,000 men against the 3,400 killed in battle during the war. He also reported for the first time the courage and endurance of the ordinary British soldier. When the infantry stormed the heights above the Alma River, when the 93rd formed the ‘thin red line’ at Balaklava, when the Heavy Brigade charged the Russian cavalry and the Light Brigade the guns, Russell watched and reported what he saw to the British public.

At the time, the most esteemed award for military prowess in the British Army was the Order of the Bath, but the Bath was awarded only to senior officers. The common soldier might expect a campaign medal but this would be issued to every man who took part in the war, whether he fought bravely or not. To remedy this situation the Distinguished Conduct Medal was instituted for NCOs and privates in 1854. This medal carried a pension and was highly valued but there was a growing awareness of the need for a decoration which would be open to all, regardless of rank and which would more fairly reflect the individual gallantry of men in the front line.

In December 1854 an ex-naval officer turned Liberal MP, Captain Thomas Scobell, put a motion before the House of Commons that an ‘Order of Merit’ should be awarded to ‘persons serving in the army or navy for distinguished and prominent personal gallantry…. and to which every grade and individual from the highest to the lowest…. may be admissible’.

The same idea had also occurred to the Secretary of State for War, the Duke of Newcastle. In January 1855 he wrote to Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband), suggesting a new decoration open to all ranks, recognising deeds of heroism, whether they be done by privates or officers below the rank of Major.

On 29 January the Duke followed up his letter by announcing the new award in a speech in the House of Lords. At about the same time an official memorandum on the subject was circulated within the War Office setting out the details of a cross to be awarded for ‘a single act of valour in the presence of the enemy’.

Both Prince Albert and the Queen were actively involved in the proposals. In a letter to Lord Panmure, Albert made pencil alterations to the draft warrant, which arose from his discussions with the Queen. It had already been decided that the award should carry her name, but the Civil Service’s proposal was clumsy and long-winded: ‘the Military Order of Victoria’. Albert put his pencil through this and suggested ‘the Victoria Cross’.

Queen Victoria took a great interest in her new award, especially in the design of the Cross. When the first drawings were submitted to her, she selected one closely modelled on an existing campaign medal, the Army Gold Cross from the Peninsular War, the Queen suggesting only that it should be ‘a little smaller’. She also made a significant alteration to the motto, striking out ‘for the brave’ and substituting ‘for valour’, in case anyone should come to the conclusion that the only brave men in a battle were those who won the cross.

Lord Panmure took the commission for the new medal to a firm of jewellers, Hancock’s of Bruton Street, who had a high reputation for silver work. From the beginning, however, it had been decided that the new decoration would be made of base metal and the first proof which the Queen received was not at all to her taste: “The Cross looks very well in form, but the metal is ugly; it is copper and not bronze and will look very heavy on a red coat.”

Inspired perhaps by the Queen’s remarks, someone had the happy thought that it would be fitting to take the bronze for the new medals from Russian guns captured in the Crimea. Accordingly, an engineer went off to Woolwich Barracks, where two 18-pounders were placed at his disposal. Despite the fact that these guns were clearly of antique design and inscribed with very un-Russian characters, nobody pointed out until many years had passed that the ‘VC guns’ were in fact Chinese, not Russian, and may or may not have been anywhere near the Crimea. The Chinese gunmetal proved so hard that the dies which Hancock’s used began to crack up, so it was decided to cast the medals instead, a lucky chance which resulted in higher relief and more depth in the moulding than would have been possible with a die-stamped medal.

At this point in the proceedings, Mark circulated a Victoria Cross amongst the gathered throng. It had been presented to George Hinckley in 1863. Hinckley was an able seaman in the Royal Navy serving in the Naval Brigade during the Taiping Rebellion. On 9 October 1862 at Fenghua, China, able seaman Hinckley of HMS Sphinx volunteered to go to the rescue of the assistant master of the Sphinx, who was lying in the open severely wounded. Under heavy and continuous fire, Hinckley carried the assistant master to the shelter of a jess-house 150 yards (140 m) away. He then returned and carried a wounded army captain to safety.

Originally, the ribbon from which the medal is suspended was differentiated according to whether or not the recipient was in the army (red) or the Royal Navy (blue), but in 1918 HM King George V ordered that all medals should be suspended from a red ribbon.

Continuing with the story of the development of the Victoria Cross, Mark spoke of the day of 26 June 1857, the day chosen by Queen Victoria as a suitable day for the presentation of the first medals.Preparations for the great day were made in something of a hurry. The final list of recipients was not published in the London Gazette until 22 June, and Hancock’s had to work around the clock to engrave the names of the recipients on the Crosses. Those destined to receive the award had somehow to be found and rushed up to London, together with detachments of the units in which they had served. But some of the candidates for the Cross had left the services and were therefore not in uniform when they arrived for the ceremony. Nevertheless, the Queen herself was well satisfied with the arrangements.

Mate Charles Davis Lucas on board HMS Hecla performed the act which was to earn him the honour as the first winner of the Victoria Cross. On 21 June 1854, whilst attacking the great gun batteries of the Russian fortress at Bomarsund in the Aland Islands, a live shell landed on the deck of the Helca. Disregarding orders to take cover, Lucas picked up the 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. Thus the standard was set for others to follow.

Pictured from left to right, are: Duncan Smith, Alan Fairhurst, Mark Smith, Norman Thomas and David Barr.

Pictured from left to right, are: Duncan Smith, Alan Fairhurst, Mark Smith, Norman Thomas and David Barr.

Queen Victoria caused some consternation by electing to stay on horseback throughout the ceremony of awarding the 62 recipients with the Cross. There is a pleasing legend that the Queen, leaning forward from the saddle like a Cossack with a lance, stabbed one of the heroes, Commander Raby, through the chest. The commander, true to the spirit in which he had won the Cross, stood unflinching while his sovereign fastened the pin through his flesh. The other 61 seem to have come through the occasion uninjured.

Since that day of the first awards, a total of 1,356 Victoria Crosses have been awarded in its 150-year history. In its early years the use of the new honour appears prolific, with more VCs awarded to those soldiers who fought to suppress the Indian Mutiny than to the soldiers who fought in the Second World War. In just one day alone, on 16 November 1857 at the Relief of Lucknow, no less than 24 VCs were awarded.

In 1879, at the now famous Battle of Rorke’s Drift, a small British contingent of only 137 stood firm against an army of 1,000s of Zulu warriors. For that one single battle, 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded.

During WWI (1914 – 1918) 629 Victoria Crosses were awarded, of whom 108 recipients were Freemasons, 64 of them in lodges under the United Grand Lodge of England and the others members under Grand Lodges in Scotland, Australia and Canada. Freemasons’ Hall in London is itself a memorial to the over 3,000 English Freemasons who gave their lives in action during the Great War.

As well as in Britain, the Victoria Cross remains the highest military honour for valour in the Commonwealth countries of Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Only 18 VCs have been awarded since the end of the Second World War. Following a period of 36 years without a VC being awarded, Private Johnson Beharry was presented one in 2005 for actions in Iraq. In 2004, when exposed to ferocious enemy fire, Private Beharry steered his own Warrior armoured vehicle away from an ambush, leading five other Warriors to safety. Beharry suffered a head injury as a result. Returning to duty the following month, he again suffered a serious head injury whilst reversing his Warrior out of yet another ambush. In addition to saving his own life, Private Beharry undoubtedly saved the lives of his injured commander and the other crew members of the Warrior. Whilst still recovering from brain surgery, Private Beharry was presented with his award by Queen Elizabeth II in April 2005, who apparently told him: “It’s been rather a long time since I’ve awarded one of these.”

The companions of Senatores Chapter of Installed First Principals unanimously hope that it will be a much shorter period before Mark Smith visits the chapter again to spread a little more of his knowledge and personality amongst its members.