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History of the War Medal
History of the War Medal 
 

Western Mail, Thursday 29 March 1933, page 2

History of the War Medal

The custom of awarding, medals for military service is supposed to have originated with the Chinese many centuries before the Christian era, but the decorations which fighting men are given today probably owe their origin to the badges which the armies of England wore after the decline of armour, and before, the introduction of distinctive uniforms. The badges themselves, it hardly need be said, grew out of the coats-of-arms which emblazoned the liveries of the retainers.

There, are a number of instances on record of commanders rewarding men upon the battlefield, by giving them regimental badges struck in some valuable metal, and perhaps studded with precious stones. Heroes who were decorated in this way removed the common or ordinary metal signs from their coats or hats and wore, instead, the much-prized emblem. In this simple performance we have the germ of medal granting and wearing as it affects the navy, army and air force of to-day.

To Queen Elizabeth belongs the honour of striking the first English war medal, but her awards were given with a very sparing hand. Charles I struck the first military medal, Elizabeth having reserved her decorations for the navy. The earliest campaign award, that is to say, the first occasion on which a whole army received these tokens, was granted by the Commonwealth to commemorate the Battle of Dunbar in 1630. Other pioneer medals were the award given for La Hague by William and Mary (this is supposed to be the first naval campaign decoration): the Culloden medal, which was the earliest to be provided with a ribbon of special pattern; the gold Peninsular medals, which bore the first bars; the Waterloo medal, the forerunner of what are sometimes called the “five shilling piece medals:'' and the Indian Mutiny medal, the first military medal to be given to a civilian for military assistance.

It must not be thought that when once the idea of decorating the fighting men had occurred to those in authority, the grants were forthwith made on all warrantable occasions, for such is far from being the case. The first campaign medal, as mentioned before, was the Danbar award, but the next occasion when the British army was similarly recognised was for Waterloo. During the intervening period of close on two centuries, the men in the ranks of the British regiments received no awards unless they performed acts of exceptional bravery.

For their services in the Battle of the Nile and for the Peninsular 'campaign, the men were given no official awards at all until, many years later, Queen Victoria decided to strike a medal and grant it to all of whom information could be found. Even in later years, when the institution oŁ campaign decorations had been firmly established, it was a common, practice to send out the tokens to their recipients two or threes years later. Thus it happens that many of the coveted pieces remain unclaimed in the hands of the authorities, sometimes through forgetfulness, but more often due to the death of the man entitled to it.

During the three centuries that medals have been granted in Britain, a wide range of medals has been used for their composition, but silver, gold and bronze are by |far the most usual. Various shapes have also been employed, by the designers. In the early days the oval was usually employed, but since the time of the Honourable East India Company's first award, the circular piece has found the greatest share of favour.

All -the early types were worn around the neck, either by .means of a chain or ribbon. Later, the favoured way was to wear the decoration hanging from the coat button, but now the awards are pinned on the breast.