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The Victoria Cross for Valour

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The Victoria Cross (For the Royal Navy the ribbon is blue.)

On this day in1857, on horseback in Hyde Park, Queen Victoria personally gave the Victoria Cross to each of 62 servicemen, bending down to pin the Cross on their uniforms.

It was the first time that the Cross had been given. Since then the peoples of Britain and the Commonwealth have been engaged in two world wars in the defence of freedom, and there have been many Victoria Crosses marking supreme courage.

The Victoria Cross is the highest recognition for valour in the face of the enemy that can be given to members of the British and Commonwealth armed forces of any rank in any service, and civilians under military command.

The Cross bears the royal crest and the inscription For Valour. The recipient's name, rank, number and unit are inscribed on the reverse of the suspension bar. The date of the act of bravery is inscribed in the centre of the reverse of the cross.

Gallantry under fire

One thousand three hundred and fifty-three persons have been awarded 1,356 Victoria Crosses. Some of them have been awarded posthumously. Three men have been awarded the VC and Bar, a second award of the VC: Noel Chavasse and Arthur Martin-Leake, both doctors in the Royal Army Medical Corps, received the Victoria Cross and Bar for rescuing wounded men under fire. New Zealander Charles Upham, an infantryman, received the Victoria Cross and Bar for actions in combat.

The first act of valour to be recognized was that of Charles Davis Lucas, 20 years old, of the Royal Navy -

In May 1854 Lucas was appointed mate of HMS Hecla, a small paddle-wheel steam warship, under the command of Captain William Hutcheon Hall. On the night of 21–2 June 1854 the Hecla, with two other ships, was engaging the Russian fortress at Bomarsund, on the Baltic Åland Islands. At the height of the action a Russian shell landed on deck, the fuse still hissing and burning. An officer ordered the men to fling themselves flat, but Lucas with great coolness and presence of mind ran forward and hurled the shell into the sea, where it exploded with a tremendous roar. All the sailors lived.

What inspires a man to defy almost certain death to save others?

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Richard Wallace Annand VC, 2nd Lieutenant, 2nd Battalion, Durham Light Infantry

For most conspicuous gallantry on the 15th-16th May 1940 when the platoon under his command was on the south side of the River Dyle, astride a blown bridge. During the night a strong attack was beaten off, but about 11 a.m. the enemy again launched a violent attack and pushed forward a bridging party into the sunken bottom of the river. Second Lieutenant Annand attacked this party, but when ammunition ran out he went forward himself over open ground, with total disregard for enemy mortar and machine-gun fire. Reaching the top of the bridge, he drove out the party below, inflicting over twenty casualties with hand grenades. Having been wounded he rejoined his platoon, had his wound dressed, and then carried on in command.

During the evening another attack was launched and again Second Lieutenant Annand went forward with hand grenades and inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy.

When the order to withdraw was received, he withdrew his platoon, but learning on the way back that his batman was wounded and had been left behind, he returned at once to the former position and brought him back in a wheelbarrow, before losing consciousness as the result of wounds. -Citation in The London Gazette for 23rd August 1940

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Mark Gregor Strang Donaldson VC with his wife Emma and daughter Kaylee.

The first recipient of the newly created Victoria Cross for Australia was Mark Gregor Strang Donaldson VC -

He was patrolling with Afghan and US forces when they were ambushed by a well-prepared and larger Taliban force. Donaldson deliberately exposed himself to sustained machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire in order to draw their attention away from the casualties, and allow the wounded to be moved to cover.

When the patrol attempted to withdraw, the number of casualties filling the vehicles was such that unwounded personnel (including Donaldson) had to make their way on foot. As they set off, it was realised that an Afghan interpreter attached to the patrol was wounded, and had been left behind.

Donaldson immediately crossed the 260 feet or so of open ground between the convoy and the interpreter, under heavy fire, and carried him back to the vehicles where he administered first aid. The patrol eventually broke free of the ambush after two hours.

Other Victoria Cross holders are described here.

Perhaps there are many reasons why a person rises to the heights of valour. One, surely, is friendship, one of the life-saving graces of life.

This post has been edited and republished.

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