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As we approach Rememberance Day on 11th November, our thoughts turn to all the brave men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.  Part of those greater numbers are the recipients of the Victoria Cross.  To quote Queen Victoria this is awarded “for most conspicuous bravery or some daring pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy”.  Due to its very nature, it is the highest and most prestigious award of the British honours system.

When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert briefed the war office to produce the new medal it was to be an award that did not recognise birth or class and would not be connected to the length or merit of service but rather to the act of gallantry in the presence of the enemy.  Previous to this, only senior officers were award medals for bravery as it was thought that it was their leadership that resulted in victory.  The award was first introduced on 29 January 1856 by Queen Victoria during the Crimean war.  Since then the medal has been awarded 1358 times.

Jewellers, Hancocks of London have produced every medal by hand since inception.  The medal features a bronze cross pattée, a type of Christian cross that appeared in very early medieval art.   This bears the crown of Saint Edward guarded by a lion and the inscription “For Valour”.  The cross is suspended by a ring, connected by a V to a bar decorated with laurel leaves, through which the crimson ribbon passes.  On the back of the medal the date of the act of valour is engraved in the centre.

There have are some very noteworthy recipients: –

  • The two youngest recipients of the Victoria Cross were Thomas Flinn in 1857 and Andrew Fitzgibbon in 1860. Both were 15 years and 3 months.
  • The oldest recipient of the Victoria Cross was 69 year old William Raynor who defended an ammunition store in Delhi for five hours in 1857.
  • Three fathers and sons have earned the Victoria Cross, including Major Charles Gough in 1857 and his son Major John Gough in 1903.
  • Four pairs of brothers have earned the Victoria Cross, including Major Charles Gough and his brother Lieutenant Hugh Gough in 1858.

In these turbulent times, with the United Kingdom sometimes quite divided by origin and opinion, it was inspiring to read the story of Acting Captain Arthur Henderson who showed outstanding bravery, paying the ultimate price in the protection of other regiments on 23 April 1917.

Arthur Henderson was enlisted in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in August 1914 when he was 21.  He was an acting captain in the Battle of the Somme and commanded a Company of his battalion in the second Battle of the Scarpe.  The offensive started at 4.45am with an attack by two companies of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders flanked by one company from the Middlesex Regiment and one from the 4th Suffolk regiment.  Henderson’s company achieved its objective by 6.30 am but four hours after that; there was a German counter attack and the Suffolks were driven to Henderson’s right, which meant that the Highlanders and the Middlesex Regiment were isolated.  In spite of his company being attacked from the front and rear, Henderson personally led a bayonet charge against a large part of the enemy formation.  In the morning it was apparent that A Company and a platoon from B Company had held their position in spite of being isolated and fighting against a much larger enemy force which had by then withdrawn.  Sadly, Henderson who was wounded in the action on the previous day was shot and killed whilst he tended to his injured men that morning, he was 24.  The Victoria Cross was presented to his father at Buckingham Palace on 21 July 1917.

This is a fine example, not only of extreme valour but of a nation united, regardless of individual background, colour or creed to face a fierce and highly organised enemy.

One thing is certain; we will all be re-united once again on 11th November to pay our respects to all the heroes of that past – lest we forget!