The highest medal for gallantry awarded to members of the British armed forces, the Victoria Cross (VC), was instituted in 1856. Since that time, a huge body of literature has grown up around it. Much writing on the subject involves recounting particular actions in which the medal was won. Yet beyond this both military and cultural historians have tended to steer clear of the subject. However, records relating to the medal (particularly during the twentieth century) are extremely good and it is possible to establish biographical detail about almost all those who have won the medal since 1914. To mark the medal’s 150th anniversary, the National Archives are putting many of these records online.
To date 1,355 Victoria Crosses have been awarded. Though precise statistics about when and where medals were awarded are hard to come by, the awards can be loosely grouped into four categories. Just over 500 were given for action in engagements before 1914, most importantly during the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny and the Boer War. About 620 medals were awarded during the First World War and around 180 during the Second. Twelve medals were awarded in imperial skirmishes between the wars and another twelve have been given since 1945. The story of how the medal has been awarded at these different times, and how its recipients have been treated, can tell us much about the social history of soldiering and how this history intersects with questions of race, class and empire.
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