AN AWARD FORGED IN THE CRIMEA
The award for bravery was first instituted in 1856 on the back of Britain's involvement in the Crimean War. Prior to the Victoria Cross (VC), officers were eligible for recognition via the Order of the Bath, an award founded by George I in 1725.
But when it became the Victoria Cross it was not just an award for officers but all members of the armed forces, regardless of rank. In the original Royal Warrant instituting the VC, Queen Victoria stated that the award should be ordained with a view to:
Place all persons on a perfectly equal footing in relation to eligibility for the Decoration, that neither rank, nor long service, nor wounds, nor any other circumstance or condition whatsoever, save the merit of conspicuous bravery shall be held to establish a sufficient claim to the honour.
However, more than half of VC winners have been officers.
THE FIRST VC
On June 21st 1854, Mate C. D Lucas of HMS Hecla performed the act which was to earn him the honour as the first winner of the Victoria Cross.
As part of the Anglo-French fleet attacking Russian targets in the Baltic, HMS Hecla found itself fighting the great guns of the fortress Bomarsund in the Aland Islands. When a live shell landed on the deck of the Helca, Lucas disregarded orders to take cover, picked up the shell - whose fuse was burning and smoking, walked to the edge of the ship and dropped it over the side.
The shell exploded as it hit the water and Lucas was promoted to Lieutenant on the spot.
Lucas received his award three years later, although higher ranking personnel received their awards before him.
VICTORIA CROSS FACTS AND STATS
Over 1,350 medals have been awarded in the 150 year history of the Victoria Cross, although only 12 have been won since 1945.
Incredibly, more VCs were given to soldiers who fought to suppress the Indian Mutiny of 1857 than to soldiers who fought in the Second World War. The Indian Mutiny involved thousands of British troops whilst the Second World War involved millions.
At the famous Battle of Rorke's Drift on 22 January, 1879 a British force of 137 stood firm against thousands of Zulu warriors. Eleven Victoria crosses were won in this battle alone.
The Victoria Cross is still the highest military honour in Canada, Australia and New Zealand but it has been abolished by the Indian Army.
It was originally believed that the medals were made from the metal of Russian guns captured at Sebastopol during the Crimean War. However, it has since been proved that the medals were probably made from Chinese Gunmetal.
In the original Royal Warrant instituting the Victoria Cross, Queen Victoria stated that the medal should be "highly prized and eagerly sought after by the Officers and Men of our Naval and Military Services" and that it should bear the description "For Valour" as opposed to "For Bravery" which the Queen pointed out could be seen to imply that other's were not brave.
The Royal Warrant also made provision to grant the holder a special pension of £10 per year.
The Queen was also keen to ensure that the Victoria Cross was associated with noble qualities beyond the recipient's military life. In the royal document it states that in order to effectively preserve this most honourable distinction:
It is ordained that if any person on whom such distinction shall be conferred be convicted of Treason, Cowardice, Felony or of any infamous crime his name shall forthwith be erased from the Registry of Individuals upon whom the said declaration shall have been conferred.
VALOUR IN IRAQ
The most recent VC to be awarded to a living recipient was given to Private Johnson Beharry for action in Iraq during 2004. Private Beharry accepted the award with humble modesty saying that he was "just doing his job" when he rescued colleagues in the Warrior armoured vehicle he was driving.
With his head exposed to ferocious enemy fire, Private Beharry steered the vehicle away from an ambush in the city of Al Amarah and suffered a serious head injury from the result of enemy fire. On his return to duty the following month he again suffered a serious head injury whilst reversing his Warrior out of another ambush, again saving the lives of his colleagues.
The Queen presented Private Beharry with his award in April 2005 telling him "it's been rather a long time since I've awarded one of these." "Maybe I was brave, I don't know. I think anyone else could do the same thing." Private Johnson Beharry who was awarded the Victoria Cross in 2005 for action in Iraq a year earlier.