Long Service and Good Conduct – British awards for meritorious military service since 1840

In 1830, King William IV instituted a silver medal to be worn by discharged British Army soldiers already in receipt of a gratuity in recognition of meritorious service. Ordinary soldiers and non-commissioned officers were required to have served either 21 years in the infantry, or 24 years in the cavalry with what was described as ‘an irreproachable character’ or to have ‘particularly distinguished’ themselves. Recipients of the award, many of whom were veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, were also never to have been convicted by court-martial.

The medal was suspended on a ring, with the words ‘For Long Service and Good Conduct’ on the reverse, and on the obverse appeared the design of a trophy of arms with the House of Hanover shield at the centre. This was the first British Army medal to be awarded for service other than during a campaign, and remained in use for a century with minimal modifications. When Queen Victoria succeeded to the throne in 1837, her father’s Hanoverian shield was removed, and the trophy of arms was replaced with the effigy of the reigning monarch in 1901. The eligibility criteria were standardised in 1870 to 18 years of irreproachable service by Regular Army soldiers and non-commissioned officers.

King William IV also approved the award of a silver medal and a gratuity for selected Royal Navy and Royal Marines ratings who had completed 21 years of long service and good conduct. This medal was replaced in 1848 by the Naval Long Service and Good Conduct Medal, which remained solely for award to Royal Navy and Royal Marines other ranks and ratings. Officers were not eligible for the medal.

In 1895, Queen Victoria approved the award of medals for meritorious service, distinguished conduct and long service to Dominion and Colonial troops within the British Empire. The Army Long Service and Good Conduct Medals awarded by Canada, South Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand were identical to the British medal, but with the addition of the name of the Dominion of Colony added to the reverse, and a coloured band to the centre of the crimson ribbon.

Separate awards were instituted in the 1890s to recognise long service by volunteer and auxiliary military units which had been established after the Crimean War for local defence purposes while the British Army remained on campaign overseas.  The military volunteer movement proved popular in both the United Kingdom and throughout the empire, and the Volunteer Service Medal and the Volunteer Officers’ Decoration each recognised 20 years’ service.

In 1908 the Volunteer Force was replaced with a British and empire-wide system of volunteer territorial service, designed (in the words of the Richard Haldane, the Secretary of State for War) as ‘a real national army, formed by the people’ to support the regular British Army in time of war. Territorial Force Decorations and Medals therefore replaced the Volunteer long service awards, ultimately recognising multiples of 12 years’ efficient service. Awards were also instituted in 1908 for Petty Officers and ratings, and for the officers of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve who had rendered 20 years of efficient and thoroughly competent commissioned service.

The majority of military long service awards were gradually replaced by standardised awards in the decades following the Second World War. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Volunteer Reserves Service Medal, which was introduced in 1999, is awarded to all members of all branches of the British Volunteer Reserves after 10 years’ qualifying service. The Canadian Forces’ Decoration, which was instituted in 1949, recognises 12 years’ service by all ranks of regular, reserve or auxiliary forces. New Zealand by contrast, continues to award a range of British-designed regular and territorial long service awards under New Zealand Warrants.

The New Zealand Defence Service Medal (NZDSM) was established in 2013 for award to both military and civilian members of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) in recognition of exceptional performance, commitment, or innovation. It replaced the New Zealand Meritorious Service Medal which was first instituted in 1898 for award to senior non-commissioned officers with at least 21 years’ service, and who already held the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. Amongst the first recipients of the NZDSM in 2014 was Wing Commander (retired) Leanne Woon, who served as a logistics officer for 25 years with the Royal New Zealand Air Force. The citation for her award made special mention of her work in developing the contribution of women in the defence forces by means of women’s air force forums and the provision of strategic advice to the NZDF to increase women’s participation in the services.

Author’s Profile:

Dr Aaron Fox is a New Zealand-based military and security intelligence historian. He trained as an historian at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, before directing medallic policy for the New Zealand Defence Force. He later worked as a senior local government manager, and as a specialist advisor to the renowned Weta/Te Papa exhibition ‘Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War’. His current projects include a biography of the notable New Zealand soldier and politician, Brigadier James Hargest.