Tuesday, February 1, 2011

February 24, 1857 --- The Victoria Cross

Buckingham Palace announces that 62 veterans of the Crimean War will be the first-ever recipients of the V.C., the Victoria Cross.

Navy Captain William Peel shall receive three, most notably for retrieving a live Russian shell that landed in the magazine of his battery, and racing to throw it over the parapet before it burst and likely would have killed the entire detachment. Four survivors of the "Charge of the Light Brigade" make the list, including Private Sam Parkes. Under heavy enemy fire, Private Parkes fought off numerous Cossack swordsman and saved the life of the Brigade Trumpet-Major who had been shot from his horse.

The medals are handed out in Hyde Park ceremonies that summer. In the shape of a Maltese cross, the first VC's are crafted of metal made from the Russian guns taken at Sebastopol. The Cross is conceived of and designed by Prince Albert, who had urged that it be open to all ranks for "personal deeds of valor" in the face of the enemy. He also proposed "that an annuity (say of £5) be attached to each cross." After the embarrassing Findlater affair (see 31 May) the annuity was significantly increased. The Queen suggested the motto "For Valor" be stamped on the medal rather than "For Bravery," fearing the latter might imply that the great mass of her troops, without VC's, were somehow less brave.

At first glance, the VC fails to impress; The Times frowns: "Never did we see such a dull, heavy, tasteless affair ... [a] most shapeless mass. Valor must, and doubtless will, be still its own reward in this country, for the Victoria Cross is the shabbiest of all Prizes."  Nonetheless, the VC remains the most coveted military honor in Britain, "the proudest honor an Englishman's blood can buy."

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