Sept/Oct 2008

Alloyed adornment, unalloyed valour

Canada’s Victoria Cross is the product of modern metallurgical ingenuity and centuries-old tradition

By M. Kerawala

From dreaded damascene swords and storied samurai blades to the marvels of modern military technology, metals have played a frontline role in warfare. And then there is another, quieter role for metals, as the material for medals and decorations bestowed upon soldiers. The highest honour that Canadian soldiers can aspire to is the Victoria Cross.

Introduced in 1856 by Queen Victoria, the Victoria Cross was reputedly cast from a Russian cannon captured during the Crimean War. Since it was extended to colonial troops in 1867, 94 Canadians have received the medal. In 1993, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II approved a Canadian version of the Victoria Cross.

Since then, much thought went into making the new Canadian medal distinct from the British original without straying too far from its rich heritage. After years of research, discussion, consultation and redesigning, the Canadian Victoria Cross was finally unveiled in Ottawa on May 16, 2008 by Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada.

“It was one of those beautiful projects,” recalled John Udd, principal scientist, Minerals and Metals Sector at Natural Resources Canada (NRCan). “It involved Canadian Heritage, the Department of National Defence, Veteran Affairs Canada, the Canadian War Museum and the Royal Canadian Mint, among others.”

To celebrate the shared linguistic heritage of Canada’s two official languages, the motto on the insignia in the new medal was changed from the English “For Valour” to the Latin “Pro Valore.” Fleurs-de-lis were also added at either end of the scroll bearing the motto.

However, it is its substance that makes the medal truly Canadian. “A recipe was decided upon that was different than anything that had been done before,” reported John Dutrizac, a research scientist at CANMET, who headed the team researching the alloy for the medal. “We then set out to acquire the metals, including metal from a cannon captured by the British during the Crimean War and a Canadian Confederation medal from 1867. We obtained copper native to Canada from a variety of sources in every region: the Arctic, Northwest Territories, Yukon, British Columbia, the Prairies, Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada.”

Peter Newcombe, senior research technologist at NRCan said: “Our main role was to ensure the consistent production of a highly detailed medal that would react well with the applied patina and last over time.” In the interest of relief and detail, the medal was to be cast and not die-struck. The Experimental Casting Laboratory made wax replicas of the cross and suspender bars and poured a ceramic mixture around them to form moulds. Molten alloy was poured into the de-waxed and fired moulds to produce castings that were then trimmed by precision wire electrical discharge machining. The medals were then hand-chased by the Royal Canadian Mint and given a patina to protect and colour the surface. Finished medals were sent to the Department of National Defence for final mounting.

Speaking at the unveiling of the new Victoria Cross, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, “The medal will be a proud reminder of our unity and our heritage and of the sacrifices that have helped keep our True North strong and free. It will serve as an inspiration to future generations.”

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