Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome David to the Parish Room last night to tell members about the history of medals. Bringing with him five tables worth of medals and memorabilia from his 45 years of collecting, he brought incredible passion, humility and warmth to a subject so dear to many - it really was a tour de force.
We heard that medals, or military decorations, began in earnest after the battle of Waterloo, which was the first award issued to all ranks and set a precedent for the future issue of campaign medals. The medal was awarded to all those who served at the battles of Ligny, Quatre Bras and Waterloo on 16th-18th June 1815. Some 36,000 medals were issued, including 6,000 to the Cavalry, 4,000 to the Guards, 16,000 to the Line Regiments and 5,000 to the Artillery.
David then told us a range of Service Medals were available for men and women (nurses) who saw military service in the Great War; they were not Campaign Medals, as these weren't issued in the first world war, but were awarded to all those who met the criteria.
We heard there were four main medals:
- The 1914 Star
Issued to British forces who served in France or Belgium from 5 August 1914 (declaration of war) to midnight 22 November 1914 (end of the First Battle of Ypres). Primarily awarded to the 'Old Contemptibles', who were the professional pre-war soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force. Approximately 378,000 1914 Stars were issued.
- The 1914-15 Star
This bronze medal is very similar to the 1914 Star but has the dates 1914-15 in the centre of the star. Issued to a much wider range of recipients, including all who served in any theatre of war outside the UK between 5 August 1914 and 31 December 1915, except those eligible for the 1914 Star. An estimated 2.4 million 1914-15 Stars were issued.
Neither the 1914 Star nor the 1914-15 Star were awarded alone. The recipient would also have received the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
- British War Medal 1914-18
A silver medal (1 ounce solid silver) awarded to officers and men of the British and Imperial Forces who either entered a theatre of war or served overseas between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918 inclusive - later extended to services in Russia, Siberia and some other areas in 1919 and 1920. Approximately 6.4 million medals were issued, giving a graphic indication of the scale of the First World War.
- Allied Victory Medal
The Allies issued their own bronze victory medals with similar design, equivalent wording and identical ribbon. To qualify, individuals had to have entered a theatre of war, not just served overseas. Approximately 5.7 million Victory Medals were issued.
As David pointed out, apart from the 1914 Star, these medals are not rare, with most men receiving three medals and a minority two. The issue of these service medals, in the 1920's, coincided with a comic strip in the Daily Mirror newspaper featuring Pip the dog, Squeak the penguin and Wilfred the rabbit, and soon thereafter the 1914 or 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal were nicknamed 'Pip, Squeak and Wilfred'. When just the British War and Victory Medals were worn together, they became known as 'Mutt and Jeff', after another pair of cartoon characters.
We then heard about the Memorial Plaques issued after the war to the next of kin of all British and Empire service personnel killed as a result of the war. They were large, made of bronze and became popularly known as the ‘Death Plaque, ‘Dead Mans Penny' or ‘Widow's Penny'. Issuance continued into the 1930s to commemorate those who died as a consequence of the war, and some 1.35 million plaques were issued, using a total of 450 tons of bronze. A memorial scroll and a message from the king accompanied each plaque.
At this point David observed that if politicians collected medals (he only knows of one MP who does - Nigel Farage), there would likely be many less armed conflicts because they would be more aware of the outcomes in terms of human death and suffering - an interesting viewpoint that has a great deal of merit.
He then gave some advice to those present interested in researching family histories:
- Don't give up;
- First check identity carefully;
- Regimental diaries are important, but regimental histories are usually not;
- Medal cards are important;
- Dog tags are most interesting and useful;
- Make use of well known on line historical websites.
After many questions, we gave David a break by bringing out the refreshments and drinks to nicely cap off a truly memorable evening, which was thoroughly enjoyed by all.
At our next talk, David Burnett will take us on a journey through time with his talk on Chilton through the ages. Beginning in the late Bronze Age, David will incorporate the discovery of Saxon treasure, riotous church behaviour, and memories of Chiltonians past and present.
We look forward to welcoming guests new and old to the Parish Room on Wednesday 15th February for what is sure to be a fascinating evenings entertainment.
Andy Sheppard 20th January 2017