Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Victoria Cross - Its Origins

The Victoria Cross Medal made by Hancocks of London
Queen Victoria, during her reign, had instructed the War Office to strike a new medal that would not recognise birth or class. The medal was meant to be a simple decoration that would be highly prized and eagerly sought after by those in the military services. The original warrant stated that the Victoria Cross would only be awarded to soldiers who have served in the presence of the enemy and had performed some single act of valour or devotion.
It was originally intended that the VCs would be cast from the cascabels of two cannon that were captured from the Russians at the siege of Sevastopol. In 1990 Creagh and Ashton conducted a metallurgical examination of the VCs in the custody of the Australian War Memorial. Later, the historian John Glanfield, wrote that, through the use of x-ray studies of older Victoria Crosses, it was determined that the metal used for VCs is from antique Chinese guns and not of Russian origin. Many theories abound, with one theory being that the cannons were originally Chinese weapons but the Russians captured them and deployed them at Sevastopol. 
It would appear, from the investigation, that they are indeed Chinese cannon: Creagh noted the existence of Chinese inscriptions on the cannon which are now barely legible due to corrosion. It was also thought that some medals made during the First World War were composed of metal captured from different Chinese guns during the Boxer Rebellion. However, this is not so. The VCs examined by Creagh and Ashton both in Australia (58) and at the QE II Army Memorial Museum in New Zealand (14) spanned the entire time during which VCs have been issued and no compositional inconsistencies were found. 
It was also believed that another source of metal was used between 1942 and 1945 to create five Second World War VCs when the Sevastopol metal "went missing". Creagh accessed the Army records at MoD Donnington in 1991 and did not find any gaps in the custodial record. The composition found in the WW2 VCs, amongst them those for Edwards (Australia) and Upham (New Zealand), is similar to that for the early WW1 medals. This is likely to be due to the reuse of material from earlier pourings, casting sprues, defective medals, etc.

The barrels of the cannon in question are on display at Firepower - The Royal Artillery Museum at Woolwich. The remaining portion of the only remaining cascabel, weighing 358 oz (10 kg), is stored in a vault maintained by 15 Regiment Royal Logistic Corps at MoD Donnington. It can only be removed under armed guard. It is estimated that approximately 80 to 85 more VCs could be cast from this source. A single company of jewellers, Hancocks of London, has been responsible for the production of every VC awarded since its inception.

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