The First VCs - The Stories behind the First Victoria Crosses of the Crimean War and the Definition of Courage, John Grehan

The First VCs - The Stories behind the First Victoria Crosses of the Crimean War and the Definition of Courage, John Grehan

In later wars there was sometimes a suspicion that it was easier to win a Victoria Cross for an act of bravery during an otherwise disastrous operation than during a successful one. This text suggests that that trend goes all the way back to the original creation of the award, which emerged from a background of discontent with the management of the entire Crimean War. The naval campaigns in the Baltic failed to produce the sort of victories that were expected of the Royal Navy, while in the Crimea battlefield victories weren't followed by a successful end to the campaign, and the army suffered very heavy losses in the Crimean winter, mainly caused by its own inefficiency. Changes in communication technology meant that the British public had a much more immediate source of news than in previous wars (most famously though the war correspondent William Russell of the Tmes).

As has so often been the case since, press reports helped undermine the official reports of the fighting. While Lord Raglan's dispatches mentioned just about every senior officer engaged in a battle, the press reported the bravery of individual soldiers of every rank. Some battles, in particular Inkermann, were considered to be 'soldier’s battles', where the senior officers had little impact, and yet by convention Lord Raglan ended up praising the generals and the staff officers. To make things worse, at the time the only awards available for military were limited to the upper ranks – peerages, knighthoods or the Order of the Bath. Public pressure just played a major part in the creation of the Victoria Cross.

An unusual feature of the first awards is that the Victoria Cross didn't come into existence until after the end of the war. Candidates for the award thus had to be selected well after the events for which they would be won, and there was no clear process for deciding who deserved it. Not every senior officer supported the idea, further complicating the issue. As the individual accounts suggest, there are also a number of cases where the award was somewhat controversial, either because of mistaken identity, a basic disagreement about what happened, or because senior officers didn't entirely approve of the action during which the act of bravery had occurred.

The book is nicely structured. Most of the text is a fairly traditional history of Victoria Cross winners, with a mix of background history and accounts of the deeds themselves, but with the addition of discussions of what types of activities would late be picked out. Most of these chapters cover the Crimean fighting, but we also look at the naval campaigns in the Baltic, and the fighting on the Turkish borders. Every few chapters turns back to the United Kingdom and the call for some form of recognition for the fighting men, the slow development of the award and the process by which the first winners were selected. The result is a useful study of the foundation of the most famous British award for valour.

1 - Drawing the Sword
2 - The Baltic, 1854
3 - The Battle of the Alma
4 - The Siege of Sevastopol: The Early Stages
5 - The Battle of Balaklava
6 - Little Inkerman
8 - Distinguished Conduct
9 - The Siege of Sevastopol: The First Winter
10 - Operations in the Sea of Azov
11 - The Second Baltic Campaign of 1855
12 - The Siege of Sevastopol: The Second Bombardment
13 - The Siege of Sevastopol: The First Assault Upon the Redan
14 - The Second Assault and the Fall of Sevastopol
15 - The Forgotten VC - The Siege of Kars
16 - Victoria's Cross
17 - The Men and their Medals: Life and Death after the Crimea
18 - The Battlefields of the Crimean War Today

Author: John Grehan
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 288
Publisher: Frontline
Year: 2016

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