In 1774, two English physicians organised the formation of the Royal Humane Society, dedicated to providing artificial respiration to resuscitate individuals who had almost drowned. The following year the society instituted a silver medal for award to those who put their own lives in danger in order to save the life of another. A notable recipient of the society’s gold medal was Grace Darling, who, at the age of 23 assisted her father in saving nine people from the wreck of the S.S. Forfarshire on Big off the coast of Northumberland on 7 September 1838. The pair braved rough seas in a simple row boat to rescue the passengers from the rock which the Forfarshire had struck, and take them safely to shore.
Darling also received a silver medal for gallantry from what is now known as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, a charity dedicated to saving lives at sea around the United Kingdom. Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert supported the RLNI from 1849, and Victoria granted the institution a Royal Charter in 1860. In 1869 she permitted the wearing of standardised Royal Humane Society medals on the right breast.
Queen Victoria also instituted the Albert Medal in 1866, initially awarded in two classes to recognise ‘daring and heroic actions performed by mariners and others’ to save lives at sea, and amended in 1876 to encompass the saving of life on land. Military personnel became eligible for the award from 1891. Four members of the Royal Flying Corps each received the Albert Medal in 1916, when they managed to extinguish a fire in a bomb storage shed which contained some 2,000 high explosive and a quantity of incendiary bombs. Major Cyril Newall went on to become the Chief of the Air Staff in 1937, and Governor-General of New Zealand.
In September 1940 London was subject to a systematic and sustained bombing campaign by the German air force. In the midst of what became known as ‘The Blitz’, King George VI approved the institution of the George Cross, in order to ‘worthily and promptly’ recognise acts of ‘the greatest heroism or the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger’, performed by ‘men and women in all walks of civilian life’. A unique award of the George Cross was made to the island of Malta on 15 April 1942, in recognition of the collective privations and dangers faced by the people of Malta between June 1940 and November 1942, when the island was besieged by Italian and German naval forces and subject to constant aerial bombardment. Civilian casualties numbered 1,493 dead and 3.674 wounded, with thousands of buildings either destroyed or badly damaged. King George VI bestowed the George Cross on Malta ‘to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history’, and the award is featured on the Maltese flag.
The Florence Nightingale Medal was instituted in 1912 by the International Committee of the Red Cross as the paramount award to those who distinguish themselves in the field of nursing, including acts of ‘exceptional courage and devotion to the wounded, sick or disabled or to civilian victims of a conflict or disaster’ by nurses or nursing aides. Nightingale herself was a leading social reformer, military nurse and a leading light in the professionalism of nursing in England during the nineteenth century, and was the first recipient of the Royal Red Cross. The bicentennial of Florence Nightingale’s birth was marked in 2020 with a special global collective award to ‘all the nurses and midwives in the world who are deprived of liberty because of their humanitarian engagement’, and in support of Health Care in Danger (HCID), an initiative intended to address violence against patients, health workers, facilities and vehicles, and ensuring the safe access to and delivery of health care in armed conflict and other emergencies.
The United Nations Security Council approved the institution in 2014 of a special medal for ‘those military, police, civilian United Nations personnel and associated personnel who demonstrate exceptional courage, in the face of extreme danger, while fulfilling the mandate of their missions or their functions, in the service of humanity and the United Nations.’ The award is known as the Captain Mbaye Diagne Medal for Exceptional Courage, in recognition of the actions of a Senegalese peacekeeper who saved hundreds of Rwandan lives during the 1994 genocide. Private Chancy Chitete from Malawi was posthumously awarded the medal for his selfless actions in November 2018 during a peacekeeping operation in the Eastern Congo. While engaged with rebel militia forces who were attacking local towns, and disrupting the United Nation’s efforts to control an Ebola outbreak, Chitete displayed ‘selfless heroism’ in saving a wounded Tanzanian peacekeeper before he himself was fatally wounded by rebel fire.
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.