Distribution Of Victoria Crosses By The Queen

For a long time the Turkish empire had been gradually falling into decay,

and the possessions of the Turk--the 'sick man,' as he has been aptly

termed--had excited the greed of neighbouring countries. Russia especially

had made several attempts to put an end to the 'sick man' by violent

means, and seize upon his rich inheritance.

The year 1853 seemed to the Czar Nicholas to be a favourable time for

accomplishing his designs against Turkey. Great Britain and France both

vigorously remonstrated against the proceedings of the Czar; but believing

that neither of them would fight, he commanded his armies to cross the

Pruth into Turkish territory. By this step the 'dogs of war' were once

more slipped in Europe, after a peace of forty years' duration. The

Russian forces pushed on for the Danube, doubtless expecting to cross that

river and take possession of the long-wished-for prize of Constantinople

before the western powers had made up their minds whether to fight or not.

To their disappointment, however, the Russians met with a most stubborn

resistance from the Turks, and utterly failed to take the fortress of

Silistria, where the besieged were encouraged and directed by some British


Meanwhile, the queen of Great Britain and the emperor of France had both

declared war against Russia, March 28, 1854. Before long, our fleets were

scouring the Baltic and the Black seas, chasing and capturing every

Russian vessel which dared to venture out, bombarding the fortresses, and

blockading the seaports. Two armies also were sent out to the assistance

of Turkey; the British force being commanded by Lord Raglan, and the

French by Marshal St Arnaud.

The Turks having repulsed the Russian armies on the Danube, the allies

resolved to invade the peninsula of the Crimea, and make an assault upon

the Russian fortress of Sebastopol. The great fortress was a standing

menace to Turkey; and to effect its destruction seemed the likeliest means

of humbling Russia and bringing the war to a close. Accordingly a landing

of the allied forces--British, French, and Turkish--to the number of

54,000 men, was made on the Crimea, at Eupatoria, no opposition being

offered by the enemy. The army then set forward along the coast toward the

Russian stronghold, the fleet accompanying it by sea. In order to bar the

progress of the allied forces, the Russian army of the Crimea was strongly

posted on a ridge of heights, with the small stream of the Alma in front,

September 20, 1854. After a severe struggle the heights were gallantly

stormed, and the Russians retreated towards Sebastopol.

The allied armies now laid siege to Sebastopol. It went on for a year,

during which the invaders were exposed to many hardships from the assaults

of the foe, and the severity of the climate during the winter months.

Before the year was out, also, both Lord Raglan and the French general

died, and their places were taken by others. Nor did the Czar Nicholas

live to witness the result of the war which he had commenced. His son,

Alexander, made no change, however, but trod in the footsteps of his sire.

In the early days of the siege, and before the allies had got

reinforcements from home, the Russians made several formidable attacks

upon the camp. Their first attempt was directed against the British lines,

with the design of capturing the port of Balaklava, October 25, 1854. They

were gallantly repulsed, however, chiefly by Sir Colin Campbell and his

Highlanders, who firmly stood their ground against the charge of the

Russian horse. The British cavalry, advancing to the assistance of the

infantry, cut through the masses of their opponents as if they had been

men of straw. It was in this battle that the famous charge of the Light

Brigade took place, when, owing to some misunderstanding on the part of

the commanders, six hundred of our light horsemen, entirely unsupported,

rode at full gallop upon the Russian batteries. It was a brilliant but

disastrous feat; in the space of a few minutes, four hundred of the

gallant men were uselessly sacrificed. 'It is magnificent, but it is not

war,' was the remark of a French general.

Shortly afterwards occurred the desperate fight of Inkermann, November 5,

1854, where about 8000 British troops bravely stood their ground for hours

against 40,000 Russians. Upon their ammunition running short, some of our

brave men, rather than retreat, hurled volleys of stones at the foe.

Ultimately, a strong body of the French came to their aid, and the

Russians were driven from the field.

Not long after this encounter, the besiegers met with a disaster which did

them more harm than all the assaults of the Russian hordes. A terrific

storm swept across the Black Sea and the Crimea, November 14, 1854. A

great number of the vessels in Balaklava harbour were wrecked, and there

was an immense loss of stores of all kinds intended for the troops. The

hurricane also produced the most dreadful consequences on land. Tents were

blown down, fires extinguished, and food and cooking utensils destroyed.

The poor soldiers, drenched to the skin, and without so much as a dry

blanket to wrap round them, had to pass the dreary night as best they

could upon the soft wet ground. For some time afterwards there was a great

scarcity of food and clothing and other necessaries, and much suffering

was endured during the long dreary winter. When tidings of these

misfortunes reached England there was much indignation against the

government, and especially against the officials whose duty it was to keep

the army properly supplied with stores. The prime-minister, the Earl of

Aberdeen, resigned, and was succeeded by Lord Palmerston. Vigorous steps

were now taken to provide for the comfort of the troops, and in a short

time the camp was abundantly supplied with everything necessary.

All through the following summer the siege operations went on. Nearer and

nearer approached the trenches towards the doomed city, which at intervals

was subjected to a terrific bombardment from hundreds of guns. The allied

armies had been strongly reinforced from home, and had also been joined by

a Sardinian force, so that the Russians no longer ventured to attack them

so frequently. At length the advances of the allies were completed, and

the final cannonade took place, and lasted for three days. The storming

columns then carried the main forts; and the Russians, finding that

further resistance was useless, evacuated the town during the night, and

the following day it was taken possession of by the combined armies. With

the capture of Sebastopol, 8th Sept., 1855, the war was virtually at an

end, though peace was not formally declared till six months afterwards by

the Treaty of Paris.

The Queen and prince watched intently every movement of the tremendous

drama. In the terrible winter of 1855, the Queen's thoughts were with her

troops, suffering in the inclement weather, amid arrangements that proved

miserably inadequate to their needs. On 6th December 1854, the Queen wrote

the following letter to Mr Sidney Herbert, Secretary of War. 'Would you

tell Mrs Herbert that I begged she would let me see frequently the

accounts she receives from Miss Nightingale or Mrs Bracebridge, as I hear

no details of the wounded, though I see so many from officers, &c., about

the battlefield; and naturally the former must interest me more than any

one. Let Mrs Herbert also know that I wish Miss Nightingale and the ladies

would tell these poor, noble, wounded and sick men that no one takes a

warmer interest, or feels more for their sufferings, or admires their

courage and heroism more than their Queen. Day and night she thinks of her

beloved troops; so does the prince.' With her own hands she made

comforters, mittens, and other articles of clothing, for distribution

among the soldiers, and she wrote to Lord Raglan that she 'had heard that

their coffee was given to them green, instead of roasted, and some other

things of this kind, which had distressed her, and she besought that they

should be made as comfortable as circumstances can admit.'

The little princes and princesses contributed their childish but very

pretty drawings to an exhibition which was opened for the benefit of the

soldiers' widows and children. As the disabled soldiers returned to this

country, the Queen and the prince took the earliest opportunity of

ascertaining by personal observation in what condition they were, and how

they were cared for. And when the war was over, Miss Florence Nightingale,

the soldier's nurse and friend, was an honoured guest in the royal family,

'putting before us,' writes the prince, 'all the defects of our present

military hospital system, and the reforms that are needed.' On 5th March

1855, the Queen wrote to Lord Panmure suggesting the necessity of

hospitals for sick and wounded soldiers, which eventually took shape in

the great military hospital at Netley.

Victoria Crosses were distributed by the Queen in Hyde Park, 26th June

1857, to those soldiers who had performed special acts of bravery in

presence of the enemy. This decoration was instituted at the close of the

Crimean War, and has since been conferred from time to time. It is in the

form of a Maltese cross, and is made of bronze. In the centre are the

royal arms, surmounted by the lion, and below, in a scroll, the words 'For

Valour.' The ribbon is blue for the navy, and red for the army. On the

clasp are two branches of laurel, and from it the cross hangs, supported

by the initial 'V.'

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