A political medal

The Victoria Cross medal was instigated on 29 January 1856, in a climate of public distrust and suspicion. In the years prior to the medal’s announcement, the British army had been embroiled in a bloody and prolonged conflict in the Crimea. Though victorious, inept administration, indecisive general ship and damming media coverage, had dealt a severe blow to the public’s perception of the British army.

As a direct result, wide scale public and governmental examination of the army was undertaken. It was in the wake of this public relations disaster that the Victoria Cross was born. It is my view that the medal was created to meet both a military and a public need. Contemporary changes in the structure of the army, together with additions to the gallantry award system, meant that a need had been created for a universal gallantry award. In addition, there existed an increasing demand from the British public for an award system that allowed acts of bravery to be recognised in a official manner.

It is for these reasons that I believe that the Victoria Cross was, and still is, a political medal. By this I mean that factors beyond the fulfilment of military guidelines are significant in deciding ,when and to whom, the medal is awarded.

To examine this more closely lets us look at a some facts about the medal in the years prior to the First World War.

Between the medal’s instigation in 1856 and the start of the First World War in 1914, 522 VCs were awarded.

111 VCs were presented for actions during the Crimean War (1854 – 1856) and 182 for gallantry during the Indian Mutiny (1857-1859). These two campaigns represent 56% of the medals presented during this period.

This means that during a time when VCs were award for a total of forty eight conflicts, over half the medals issued were for just two wars.

This is even more surprising when you consider the Boer Wars (1899-1902) and the Zulu War (1879). These disputes have the similarity that they were highly ‘visible’ conflicts, in which the national newspapers levelled a large amount of very public criticism. Yet, the Boer Wars saw 78 VCs presented and the Zulu War a mere 23. This means that more medals were issued during the Crimean war, than both of these campaigns combined.

If we look at the Zulu War even more closely we see that of the 23 medals issued, 14 arise from the disastrous battle of Isandlwana (January 22, 1879) and subsequent defence at the defence of Rorke’s Drift (January 22January 23, 1879).

So what does this mean?

If during this period, VCs were being issued whenever an act of gallantry fulfilled the strict military guidelines, we would expect to see a correlation between conflicts, numbers of soldiers in active combat and the number of VCs issues.

However, this is not the case.

Therefore, I believe that factors, other that gallantry, influenced when and to whom the VC was awarded.


5 Responses to “A political medal”

  1. Gavin Robinson Says:

    This is really interesting and exciting. I’m looking forward to reading more.

    Strangely enough I’ve been thinking about medals recently, after seeing various discussions on the Great War forum. It struck me that gallantry awards depended on circumstances as much as personal qualities, but I hadn’t thought about the wider social and political need to make awards. In the official history of 1/5th Lincs Regiment the CO hints that he thinks his battalion should have won more medals for their attack on the Hohenzollern redoubt in 1915, but that it was impossible to record or corroborate all the acts of gallantry because most of the officers were killed or wounded.

  2. breathinghistory Says:

    I have been meaning to get the site up and running for ages. The focus is most defiantly on the wider angle, the role of heroes in our society and the changing view of muscularity in society.
    Do you have the reference for the 1/5th Lincs Regiment. Over the years I have tried, mostly in vain, to get direct quotes regarding the political nature of the medal. One of the best I have managed is from General Sir Peter De La Billiere, who talks in his book ‘Looking for Trouble’, about his command of the SAS. In referring to the actions of one Special Forces soldier he says:
    ‘I should have liked to recommend him for the Victoria Cross, but this was politically impossible, for a VC would have attracted far too much attention and publicized our presence in Oman to an unacceptable degree.’

  3. Gavin Robinson Says:

    It’s not very explicit, and not very political but here it is:

    T. E. Sandall, A History of 5th Battalion the Lincolnshire Regiment, (Oxford, Blackwell, 1922), p. 50 (about the attack on the Hohenzollern redoubt, battle of Loos, 13th October 1915):

    “Of the many gallant deeds performed, and the numerous instances of courage, resource, and devotion to duty, few were ever recorded, owing to the very heavy casualties among the officers, and the consequent absence of official reports.”

    I have to admit I’m biased because my great-grandfather was probably there! I’m planning to make a digital edition of the book once I’ve made sure that it’s out of copyright.

  4. breathinghistory Says:

    This is really interesting. The effect of high officer casualties is well documented, especially as a reason for the British Army repeatedly using suspect tactics in the opening years of World war One. It’s nice to have a direct quote suggesting the casualty rate also had an effect on VC awards.

  5. Investigations of a Dog » The 46th History Carnival Says:

    […] but if anything the reality is even more blood-soaked. Gary Smailes has just started a new blog at Victoria’s Cross? which aims to ask whether medal awards were influenced by politics. At Great War Fiction George […]

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