Captain Scobell plays a small, yet important, cameo role in the development of the Victoria Cross. He is credited by many historians as being the first person to officially voice the idea for a new medal.
In the winter of 1854, Britain was dominated by talk of the Crimean War. The lethality, brutality and shear novelty of the conflict had caught the imagination of the population. Effective journalism and reporting had brought the conflict into the homes of most literate Britons. The publication of letters from common soldiers in the popular newspapers altered the public image of the infantryman. Changing it from Wellington’ ‘scum’ into a living and breathing human being. The public’s reaction to the sacrifice of its soldiers was the demand for recognition of both the fighting force as a whole and the individual soldier.
The awards system in 1854 was at best ‘ad hoc’. It had been developed to promote and reward officers and acted as an accompaniment to the Purchase System. In essence, the reward system revolved around officer centred wards such as the Order of the Bath, fiscal rewards and on the spot promotions. No reward was in place to recognise the gallantry of the common soldiers.
In comparison, the French army possessed the Legion of Honour. This medal had no rank barriers and was used to reward gallant behaviour throughout the army. In fact, it could even be awarded to men outside the French army. Therefore, the public demand for the recognition of its heroes was strengthened by the French insistence of rewarding many of these British men with the Legion of Honour.
On 19 December 1854, Captain George Treweeke Scobell, Member of Parliament for Bath, addressed the House of Commons requesting the institution of:
‘an ‘Order of Merit’, to be bestowed upon persons serving in the army or navy for distinguished and prominent personal gallantry during the present war [Crimean], and to which every grade and individual, from the highest to the lowest, in the united services might be admissible.’
Scobell had fought in the British Navy during the Napoleonic war. He was later a politician of varied success, holding the seat at Bath in 1841 but failing to be re-elected until 1851. He was staunchly liberal, considering himself both a reformer and defender of the common man. Though no evidence exists of Scobell’s long-term desire for the establishment of a gallantry award system, he openly declared a special interest in reforming the administration of the army and navy.
This is the last we hear of the Captain, who was happy to leave the matter in the hands of the government. Though he is unquestionably the first person to officially voice a need for a new reward, discussions in a less public forum were on going. Historical records show us that the Duke of Newcastle (Secretary of State for War and the Colonies) had been in correspondence with Prince Albert regarding a new ‘Order of Merit’ for many months.
Thus the Victoria Cross is not the brainchild of Queen Victoria, as modern mythology would have us believe. Instead, it is a slow and painful reaction to an inadequate military system of rewards and a blossoming public need to be seen to reward the sacrifice of its fighting men.