No discussion about Canadian gallantry awards can begin without first mentioning their origins — and for that we must return to the “Forlorn Hope” Medal issued on May 18, 1643 under the Royal Warrant of Charles I. The Warrant says in part, “From henceforth the Commander in Chief, both of Horse and Foot, which led up to the Forlorn-hope, upon whom we also mean to bestow special tokens of our princely favour, do signify in writings the names of those soldiers whom they find most forward in serving us, their King and Country, that care may be taken to reward their deservings and make them specially known to all our good subjects.”
The Warrant also states that the medal cannot be sold by the recipients (punishment means having their name removed from the Register) or bought by any other whose name is not on the Register. Charles I thus established the principles that deserving service should be recognized by an award, and that such awards (badges and medals) can only be issued to those whose names are on a Register.
Charles I also issued a gallantry award to Sir Robert Welch and to John Smith (who was later knighted), which became known as the Welch Medal. Both Smith and Welch wore their gold medals on a band of broad green watered silk across their shoulders. These bands — which were commonly worn for identification before armies adopted identifying uniforms — progressed to the Battle of Culloden medal, which was suspended from the neck on a definite coloured ribbon for the first time. These are the origins of the coloured ribbons from which today’s honours and awards are suspended.
Fast forward to Oct. 7, 1813 and the issue of the Army Gold Cross by George IV. The London Gazette of the day carried an entry that stated, in part, “Whereas considerable inconvenience having been found to attend the increased number of medals that have been issued in commemoration of the brilliant and distinguished events, the Prince Regent has been pleased to command, in the name and on the behalf of His Majesty, that the following regulations shall be adopted in the grant and circulation of such marks of distinction, namely: That one medal only shall be borne by each officer recommended for such distinction; That for the second and third events, which may be subsequently commemorated in like manner, each individual recommended to bear the distinction, shall carry a gold clasp attached to the ribbon to which the medal is suspended, and inscribed with the name of the battle, or siege, to which it relates.”
The Duke of Wellington received nine such bars, so the desire to decrease the burden on the neck was quite real. This entry confirms the practice of suspending awards from ribbons, but more importantly it initiated the principle that only one service medal is issued for the overall effort, while clasps would be issued for separate battles. On June 1, 1847, the Military General Service Medal was approved, with 29 bars awarded, covering the period 1793 to 1814. Participants had to apply.
The use of Mentions-In-Despatches (MID), which notified superiors of outstanding performance by deserving officers in the army and at sea, was practised in the early 1800s and expanded in the 1840s to include all ranks. Similarly, the issue of individual gallantry awards after the fact was a common practice until 1837, when the Honourable East India Company founded the Order of Merit as an unofficial award. This was the first gallantry award with conditions established before events took place. It became official in 1857, when the administration of India passed to the Crown following the Sepoy Mutiny. It was renamed the Indian Order of Merit in 1902, when Britain introduced its own Order of Merit.
This brings us to the Crimean War (1854-1856). Prior to the Crimean War, individual honours and the MID were the only accepted method to honour gallantry. Queen Victoria was so impressed by the actions of the Army that she had the Crimean War Medal awarded — with bars — to “all present” on Dec. 15, 1854. In January 1856, she had become so impressed with deeds of exceptional gallantry that Prince Albert the Prince Consort created a cross in her name made retrospective to 1854. Queen Victoria deemed that the crosses be made out of the bronze cannon captured from the Russians (at Sebastopol) during the war. Thus was created the foremost British and Commonwealth gallantry decoration, awarded for very exceptional gallantry. As such, it is the most prized gallantry award that any citizen of a British Commonwealth can earn.
A little known fact about the metal used to make the Victoria Cross came to be known in 1993. A metallurgist Peter Burke, who was authenticating crosses for auction houses in the U.K., discovered that crosses produced since the First World War were made from Chinese cannon. Burke made his findings known to Hancocks, the jewellery firm that has made every cross since 1856, only to be told about a similar discovery by the Royal Armouries at the Tower of London.
Scientists at the Royal Armouries revealed that some 800 crosses were made from Chinese cannon, confirming Burke’s findings. Since then, numerous crosses have been compared to the metal from a Chinese cannon located on the parade ground at Royal Artillery Headquarters at Woolwich, England. What would the Queen say about that?
Since 1854, the Victoria Cross has been issued 1,355 times, most recently to Private Johnson Beharry for his actions in Iraq during May 2004. The Victoria Cross has been awarded to 94 Canadians, the first to Lieutenant Alexander Roberts Dunn during the Crimean War and the last to Lieutenant (N) Robert Hampton Gray during the Second World War. Much has been written about these 94 VCs and we should hope that more will be written so that Canadians do not forget what true heroism is all about.
Queen Victoria did not stop with the Victoria Cross and Crimean War Medal. She crocheted eight scarves that were presented to soldiers during the Boer War 1899-1902. One of these was awarded to Private Richard Thompson, The Royal Canadian Regiment, for action at Paardeberg while caring for wounded comrades. Maj.-Gen J. W. B. Barr, a former Col. Commandant of the Canadian Forces Medical Branch, reported the legend that Thompson’s comrades voted that he should get the Queen’s Scarf when he was not awarded the Victoria Cross.
Canada dropped the Victoria Cross from the Canadian Honours and Awards System in 1972, when the Cross of Valour, Star of Courage and Medal of Bravery were introduced as Canada’s medals for valour and gallantry. However, the Royal Canadian Legion supported by many Canadians, campaigned to have the Victoria Cross reinstated. It was — along with the introduction of two new awards to recognize bravery in battle.
The new Victoria Cross bears the words “PRO VALORE”, instead of “FOR VALOUR” in the original. It will be awarded, “for the most conspicuous bravery, a daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.” The Star of Military Valour and the Medal of Military Valour are the two other medals. things to do . More will be written about these awards and their predecessors in upcoming issue of Vanguard.
By Lt.-Col. (Ret’d) John N. Stuart, OMM, CD