The History of Military Decorations and Medals

The Royal Honours system recognizes a wide variety of civil and military service throughout the British Commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth II as the ‘fount of honour’ reserves the sole right to confer the highest awards for chivalry, merit, gallantry and bravery.

Some honours date back hundreds of years, such as the Most Noble Order of the Garter, which was established as an order of knighthood (or chivalry) by King Edward II in 1348. The award of a knighthood, or the membership of an Order was one way in which a monarch could reward loyal service or gallantry in battle by members of the British aristocracy or military leaders.

From the eighteenth century, the British Parliament played an increasingly important role in selecting individuals for royal honours for approval by the monarch. The eligibility criteria for knighthoods were gradually widened to recognise significant public service by deserving or high-achieving individuals. A modern knighthood cannot be purchased, and does not oblige the recipient to render military service.

The current system of military decorations and medals was established during the eighteenth century and was further developed as the British Empire expanded during the nineteenth century. The highest award for gallantry was established by Queen Victoria in 1856, as a bronze cross bearing the words ‘For Valour’. The Victoria Cross is still awarded throughout the Commonwealth to members of the British or Commonwealth forces who have displayed the ‘most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy’.

War medals were awarded to British navy and army personnel for service in India and during the French Revolutionary Wars in the eighteenth century. The Duke of Wellington requested that a specific medal be struck for all officers and men who had fought at Waterloo in 1815.  However, the issue of medals or campaign stars to all officers and men involved in a campaign did become common practice until the 1840s, when a system of clasps or bars bearing the name of specific battles for wear with the medal was also introduced. General Service Medals were also instituted to recognise service in small imperial expeditions or wars, which included a bar which detailed the specific service for which the medal was awarded.

Military long service and good conduct have been recognised since 1830, when King George IV instituted an award for soldiers of irreproachable character with over twenty years’ service in the British Army. Long and efficient service and good conduct continue to be recognised throughout the Commonwealth with the award of a variety of medals for regular and territorial service in each of the three Services.

The greatest number of campaign stars and war medals were awarded for service during the First and Second World Wars. A campaign star denoted active service in 1914 and 1915, while war and victory medals indicated service in the remaining years of the First World War. Specific campaigns, such as the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915, were not recognised by the award of either a medal or bar. Eight separate campaign stars were issued for service during the Second World War, reflecting the global reach of this conflict, from Western Europe, through the Middle East to Burma and the Pacific.

Since the end of the Cold War, general service and campaign medals have recognised the work of Commonwealth military personnel in both combat and peace-keeping operations around the world, including Kuwait, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and East Timor. In the first decades of the twenty-first century, a significant number of British and Commonwealth troops served in Afghanistan and Iraq and received specific campaign medals for each conflict.

Many Commonwealth nations now issue their own civil and military awards, but the general principles for the medallic recognition of civil and military service remain consistent with the first awards of orders, decorations and medals made over the preceding centuries. Many awards still bear the effigy of the ruling monarch on the obverse (or front) of the medal, while design of a select few orders (such as the Order of the Garter) and decorations (such as the Victoria Cross) have remained unchanged since they were first instituted.

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.