The story of the instigation of the Victoria Cross is an interesting tale. Many historians, including the influential Crook, place credit firmly at the feet of Captain George Treweeke Scobell, Member of Parliament for Bath. Crook suggests that Scobell was ‘the first person to gather all these arguments into a public demand for a new award for military merit.’ Scobell was a politician of varied success, holding the seat at Bath previously 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.
It is therefore no surprise that in the shadow of the Crimean War, a man like Scobell would champion a decoration perceived to benefit the common solider. Though Scobell was not involved directly in the inauguration of the V.C., Crook is correct in his argument that the MP was the first person to raise publicly the idea of the V.C. in a defined format. This was done on 19th December 1854, when Scobell 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.’ ‘
These words reflected a growing contemporary feeling for a need to recognise acts of individual valour which went beyond the role of duty.
Though there is no question that Scobell was the instigator of the public debate regarding the requirement for a new medal, he played no part in the ensuing formulation of the V.C. On 20th January 1855, the Duke of Newcastle wrote to Prince Albert alluding to a previous conversation regarding ‘an extension of the order of the bath or the institution of some new order of Merit.’ Since the Prince had already objected to any alterations to the Order of the Bath, Newcastle asked his opinion regarding the institution of a new medal. Interestingly, Newcastle justifies his concerns by stating that it does not seem correct that ‘deeds of heroism’ should go unrewarded, simply because ‘they are done by Privates or Officers below the rank of Major.’ This comment displays Newcastle’s ignorance, or possible confusion, over the role of the D.C.M., a medal that was instituted by Royal Warrant at the end of 1854. However, it appears that Newcastle recognised the potential social impact that could be offered by an effective gallantry award. His comments to Albert suggested that, not only did he understand the larger social impact of medals, but also that a medal could carry a clear and distinct Liberal doctrine, stating:
‘There are some orders which even crowned Heads cannot wear, and it would be a military reward of high estimation if this cross could be so bestowed as to be within the reach of every Private Solider and yet to be coveted by any General at the head of an Army. Such a reward would have more effect in the Army than the grant of Commissions, and the sight of one of these crosses on the breast of a Solider returned home invalided would bring more recruits than any of the measures we now adopt.’
In response to Newcastle’s letter, Prince Albert prepared a memorandum on the issue of ‘rewards for military service by decoration.’ This document represented a pivotal point in the development of gallantry awards system and sets in writing, for the first time, direct evidence of the acceptance of individual gallantry awards as a distinctive and separate type of decoration. Albert identifies that the object of awards is ‘to reward specific services and to encourage the Army generally by the notice taken of special cases of merit.’ It is interesting to note that though this statement does possess a small element of social engineering, it does not have the same detailed and specific aims expressed during the development of the Indian award system. The Prince then attempts to summarise the contemporary system, highlighting the perceived difficulties with existing decorations. The first is the lack of an effective system for identifying and recommending actions and individuals for award. He suggests any failure to implement such a system would only serve to ‘disgust’ those, to whom the awards were designed to recognise, and to breed feelings of resentment and injustice in those who felt they had not been unfairly treated. He goes on to clarify the role of the Order of the Bath and explains that is ‘limited to those of a certain Rank to whose duties alone that degree of responsibility attend which allows you to distinguish between their merits.’ The Prince uses the example of a battalion distinguishing itself in action to demonstrate the traditional rationale behind the medal. He suggests that it’s commanding officer would have been rewarded for showing merit in the manner in which he commanded the troops, whilst officers of lower ranks where simply showing an ‘equal obedience and courage,’ thus not qualifying for the same reward. He explains that many officers would feel ‘their services may have been equally meritorious under those of their commander, and yet are left unmarked.’ The Prince goes on to consider the system of being mentioned in despatches and suggests it’s effective use would remove the discontentment, produced by the Order of the Bath, in the lower officer ranks. However, Albert suggests it fails to achieve this because of an ‘unwillingness on the part of Commanders to incur the odium of making the distinction [between officers],’ leading them mentioning ‘nearly everybody in their Dispatches.’ The next set of decorations under examination is ‘medals for particular actions and campaigns.’ He recognises that, with these awards, all ‘men are treated alike,’ and they are not open to any of the objections levelled as other types of reward. However, two problems are noted. The first is that they ‘leave individual merits unnoticed.’ Whilst, the second is that ‘distinguishing between actions becomes an embarrassment to the govt,’ stating the debacle over the Balaklava clasp as an example. The Prince’s solution to these problems was a new reward which was ‘neither reserved for the few nor bestowed upon all, which is to distinguish on a liberal scale individual merit in the Officers of the Lower Ranks, in Sergeants and in Privates.’ Yet, Albert still had reservations about his noble plan and questioned how a distinction could be made ‘between the individual services of the 200 survivors of Ld Cardigan’s Charge? [Charge of the Light Brigade] If you reward them all it becomes merely a medal for balaclava, to which the Heavy Brigade and the 93d have equal claims.’ His solution took the form of six distinct elements:
‘1. That a small cross of merit for personal deeds of valour be established.
2. That it be open to all ranks.
3. That it be unlimited in number.
4. That an annuity (say of £5) be attached to each cross.
5. That it be claimable by an individual on establishing before a jury of his peers, subjects to confirmation at home, his right to the distinction.
6. That in cases of general actions it be given in certain quantities to particular regiments, so many to the officers, so many to the sergeants, so many to the men (of the last say 1 per Company) and that their distribution be left to a jury of the same rank as the person to be rewarded. By this means alone could you ensure the perfect fairness of distribution and save the officers in command from the invidious task of making a section from under their orders, which they now shrink from in the case of the Bath.’
This memo formed the backbone of the royal commission which was to institute the V.C., and was used as the basis of Newcastle’s announcement to the House of Lords on 29th January 1855 that ‘her majesty had been advised to institute a Cross of Merit which will be open to all ranks.’ Therefore the essence of Crook’s argument regarding the institution of the V.C. is that Scobell is the first person to publicly call for such a medal but the Duke of Newcastle and Prince Albert already had a similar plan under debate.