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RLMH News - For Valour: The Victoria Cross, RUSI and the First World War
Part 1: Introduction by Ashley Ryan
The Victoria Cross, or the VC, was instituted on 29 January 1856. The aim of the medal was to recognise extraordinary bravery, regardless of rank. As a meritocratic award it was a novelty in an era when the prospect of being mentioned in despatches was considered sufficient for any personal risk or hardship endured by the ranks.
The original suggestion for the inscription on the front of the medal referred to bravery, but Queen Victoria wrote to Lord Panmure on 5 January 1856 that: ‘The motto would be better, “For Valour” than “for the brave,” as this would lead to the inference that only those are deemed brave who have got the Cross’.
The VCs are made by Hancocks, the London jewellers founded by Charles Hancock. They produced the first ever proof of the VC, ordered by Queen Victoria, which is now in the Royal Collection held at Windsor Castle. The approved proof was passed down within the Hancock family and donated by Hancock’s grandson, Colonel M. P. Hancock, to the RUSI Museum in 1922. It is now held by the National Army Museum, London.
The first presentation of the Victoria Cross took place on 26 June 1857 in Hyde Park before a crowd of 100,000 people. The final list of names was not made available to Hancocks until a few days before the ceremony. They worked night and day to ensure the medals were engraved with the recipients’ details in time for the ceremony. Queen Victoria bestowed sixty-two VCs that day. Later, she noted in her diary: ‘It was indeed a most proud, gratifying day’. Since the inception of the Victoria Cross, a total of 1,363 VCs have been awarded. Between 1914 and 1918, 628 VCs were awarded – the highest number of VCs bestowed in any one conflict, and more than three times the 182 awarded during the Second World War.
Eight RUSI members, decorated with the VC, perished during the First World War. RUSI held a commemorative event in the Library at the end of July 2017 to honour these men. The event marked the centenary of the first day of Passchendaele and also the day one of the RUSI members awarded the VC died. This was a day which saw no less than fourteen VCs awarded. This was the greatest number awarded on any day during the war, and one per cent of all VCs ever awarded. To put this in context, as a consequence of the first day of Gallipoli twelve VCs were awarded, and nine were awarded on the first day of the Somme.
The eight men were united by the common thread of their valour, and they were also connected by their membership of RUSI. This membership was the practical expression of their desire to study and excel in their chosen profession, soldiering. The sense of duty that each of them felt is best expressed in the words of one of the eight, John Edmond Gough: ‘there is one thing I have always looked upon as the duty of a soldier … to study his profession earnestly so that if one day he is put to the test and has the lives and honour of his men put in his keeping that he should be able to give a good account of … [that] trust … it would be an awful feeling for a commander to feel he had thrown his command away and lost valuable lives through incompetence, which could have been rectified by the study of his profession’.
This article is the first in a series to be published in the RUSI Library News, featuring the eight RUSI members and accompanies the “Great War Stories” series in the RUSI Journal. The ranks given in the articles to follow are those they held at the time of the VC action.
Arthur, Max. Symbol of Courage: A History of the Victoria Cross. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2004.
Brazier, Kevin. The Complete Victoria Cross: A Full Chronological Record of All Holders of Britain's Highest Award for Gallantry. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2010.
Glanfield, John. Bravest of the Brave: The Story of the Victoria Cross. Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 2005.
Gough, John to Sir Charles Bruce. May 31, 1903. Quoted in Ian F. W. Beckett. Johnnie Gough, V.C.: A
Biography of Brigadier-General Sir John Edmond Gough, V.C., K.C.B. London: Tom Donovan, 1989.
Haydon, A. L. The Book of the V.C. London: Andrew Melrose, 1906.
Queen Victoria to Lord Panmure, January 5, 1856, in Sir George Douglas and Sir George Dalhousie Ramsay, eds., The Panmure Papers: Being a Selection from the Correspondence of Fox Maule, Second Baron Panmure, Afterwards Eleventh Earl of Dalhousie, K.T., G.C.B., Vol II (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1908), p. 50.
2017. “Great War Stories: RUSI’s Fallen Members.” RUSI Journal 162, no. 3 (June/July): 4–10.
Snelling, Stephen. VCs of the First World War: Passchendaele, 1917. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2012.
“Our History: VC Award Stats.” The Victoria Cross and George Cross Association. Accessed July 7, 2017. http://vcgca.org/history.