There are few scholarly works on the subject of the Victoria Cross. In fact, beyond the Evolution of the Victoria Cross, most studies concentrate on biographical information or collections of citations. These are of little value to a serious historian.
My research has shown that the origins of the VC can be traced back to two major sources. The first is the system of awards seen in India during the 19th century. In essence, these set a precedent for awarding soldiers for individual actions. The second major developmental area is that of the campaign medal. The most influential medal being the Waterloo Medal, which was presented in the wake of the battle of Waterloo (1815). It was given to all those involved, but since the general army lists were used to determine just who should receive the medal; both combatants and non-combatants were rewarded. This went someway to later devaluing the medal as the British public struggled to separate the ideas of battlefield involvement and battlefield gallantry.
However, a precedent had been set with soldiers being awarded publically for military actions. This was a system that was beyond, and independent to, the existing system of monetary award, brevet promotions and honorific titles.
I am currently reading Saul David’s Victoria’s Wars in which he addresses conflicts between 1837 and 1861. Though he lacks the sophistication of other Empire writers, such as Niall Ferguson, his pragmatic approach does yield rewards. At the end of his section regarding the first Afghan War (1839-1842), he writes the following about Queen Victoria’s response to the war:
‘She [Queen Victoria] also gave permission for her own troops to wear the Afghanistan campaign medals that Lord Ellenborough had had struck fro the Indian Army. Active service medals were, at the time, extremely rare. A Waterloo Medal has been struck in 1816 and a Peninsular Medal would be, retrospectively, in 1846. Thanks to the example set by the HEIC in 1842, campaign medals with battle bars would become the norm. Yet the queen could not help feeling, or so she told Peel, that it would have been more appropriate if the Afghan Medal had come from herself and not from the governor-general of India.’
This quote demonstrates two important points.
The first is the cross fertilisation with the privately owned Indian Army. Though unproved, much circumstantial evidence suggests that, the manner in which Indian Army soldier were rewarded acted as a blueprint for the Victoria Cross.
The second is the growing need to recognise the actions of individual soldiers. The highly public campaign medal offered a chance for overt recognition of the soldier’s sacrifice. Since the publication of soldier’s letters during the Crimean war, the image of the British soldier had begun to soften, changing from Wellington’s ‘scum’ towards warrior heroes defending the frontiers of the Empire.
In my view, the reaction to the disastrous first Afghan War went some way to setting the foundations for later changes in the British gallantry Award system and the eventual introduction of the Victoria Cross.