The Meaning of Medal Ribbons

The ribbons of orders, decorations and medals are designed to suspend the award, either around the neck or on the left chest of the recipient. Ribbons also serve to highlight the status and significance of the award, worn in descending priority from the centre of the chest. When worn only as a ribbon on the left chest of a uniform, the display of one or more ribbons together provides a ready and colourful summary of the individual’s service career.

The colours of medal ribbons have their origins in medieval heraldry, which used a limited number of tinctures of either metal (and/or argent – gold and silver) or colour (gules, sable, azure, vert, purpure – red, black, blue, green and purple). Three stains (murrey, sanguine and tenne – mulberry, blood red and tawny) were later added to the palette. Each colour represented a chivalric quality, ranging from the sovereignty, majesty and justice of purpure, the strength and loyalty of azure, to the military strength of gules and the courage and patience in battle associated with the blood red of sanguine.

Within the British Commonwealth, the ribbon colours of blood red, blue and purple have traditionally denoted acts of extreme valor or gallantry, or especially meritorious service. Some of the earliest campaign medal ribbons awarded during the Napoleonic Wars, in particular the Waterloo Medal, were crimson with narrow blue borders.  During the reign of Queen Victoria the colour crimson became associated with the ribbon of the Victoria Cross, awarded for valor from 1856, while a plain ‘dark blue’ ribbon was chosen for George Cross, instituted by King George VI and awarded from 1941 to recognise acts of gallantry. The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, when it was founded in 1917 to acknowledge services rendered to the Empire, featured a purple ribbon.

The award of the Navy Gold Medal from 1794 until 1815 included a large medal for admirals which was worn around the neck on a 44mm wide ribbon of white with blue borders. A smaller medal was awarded to captains, who wore it suspended by the ribbon from a button-hole on the left chest of the tunic. The smaller Army Gold Medal, awarded between 1806 and 1814, was worn in the same manner. The Royal Red Cross, instituted in 1883 by Queen Victoria for award solely to female nurses and volunteers engaged in military nursing duties, was worn with the ribbon formed into a bow, from which the cross was suspended. A number of female awards of British Commonwealth orders are still worn suspended from a ribbon bow.

The width of British campaign medal ribbons was first standardised at 38 mm early in the nineteenth century, while the wearing of ribbons alone on military uniform became commonplace from the middle of the century. Ribbons were made from silk, which could readily be dyed, woven and trimmed as required, and which was strong enough to suspend heavy badges, medals and claps without distorting or fraying, and thin enough to fit neatly around the neck or suspended on the left chest. Campaign ribbons became increasingly colourful during the twentieth century and the advent of global conflicts, with designs often incorporating the national colours of both allied nations and the countries in which the military operation was located. For example, the ribbon design for the New Zealand General Service Medal 2002 (Timor-Leste) incorporates both the New Zealand and Timor Leste national colours.

While medal ribbons have traditionally featured one or more colours placed vertically across the ribbon, distinctive ribbon designs set a number of countries’ awards apart. The United States of America’s Medal of Honor, for instance, features a light blue ribbon with thirteen white stars, while the ribbon of the Order of Australia features a golden wattle design on a blue background. The New Zealand Queen’s Service Order includes a ribbon with a traditional Maori Poutama motif of diagonal black, white and red stripes which represents genealogies, as well as the various levels or steps of learning and intellectual achievement.

A number of ribbons are awarded without an associated medal. The United States issues a selection of service and training ribbon-only awards to military personnel, which are worn together with medal ribbons on the left chest. The United States Presidential Unit Citation is unusual in that every member of an American or allied unit which has been recognised for ‘gallantry, determination, and esprit de corps in accomplishing its mission under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions’ wears the ribbon of the unit citation on the right chest. Unit citations awarded by Australia and the Republic of Korea similarly feature a distinctive ribbon housed within a gold frame, worn on the right chest.

The Emperor Napoleon I is reputed to have said in 1815 that ‘A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon’ – not, of course, for the ribbon itself, but for the recognition of the service and sacrifice which the unique combination of colours denotes. Living recipients of the French Legion d’honneur sew a simple strip of silver or red thread on a suit lapel to denote their membership of France’s highest Order of Merit.

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.