On the 29th January 1856, Queen Victoria introduced the Victoria Cross to reward “most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.” The Victoria Cross – referred to as the VC – is the highest military decoration in the British honours system and takes precedence over every other order and medal.
At the end of January 1856, shortly before Russia accepted preliminary peace terms to end the on-going Crimean War, Prince Albert encouraged Queen Victoria to create a new military award that did not discriminate against birth or class. The extensive reporting of the Crimean War by journalists such as William Howard Russell had highlighted a range of acts of bravery that deserved formal recognition, and contributed greatly to the institution of the Victoria Cross.
The medals themselves are cast from metal taken from cannon captured from Russian forces at the Siege of Sevastopol. Metallurgical research has since identified that those cannon themselves were originally of Chinese origin, and had been captured by the Russians in 1855. As of January 2015, a total of 1,358 VCs have been awarded since the first presentation ceremony took place on the 26th June 1857. However, beginning in 1947 almost all Commonwealth countries introduced their own honours for gallantry and bravery.
The VC is explicitly awarded for valour in the face of the enemy. The equivalent but newer George Cross is awarded for equivalent acts of valour by civilians or by members of the armed forces who would not normally be awarded a military honour for their actions.