How to identify a military medal
In Family Tree December Helen Tovey rounds up key facts and dates for family historians that can provide vital information to help you learn about your ancestors' worlds. In the article she introduces Pip, Squeak and Wilfred, the main service medals of the First World War, and here she reveals more about some of the most well-known military medals, awarded to members of the British and Commonwealth armed forces and to women in auxiliary roles during the First and Second World Wars.
Tucked away in drawers and boxes, the chinking medals that our ancestors were awarded are a tiny memento of the wartime ordeals they had to endure. The various medals, their ribbons, clasps and bars, and the strict eligibility rules that applied to each medal, all help to teach us more about our ancestors’ service.
World War I campaign awards
To qualify for a medal, active service in a theatre of war had to be experienced for a certain period of time, however death or awards of gallantry would overrule these requirements. Those invalided out of the war permanently were awarded a Silver War Badge.
The 1914 Star (sometimes nicknamed the Mons Star or Pip) – for the 378,000 servicemen, medics and nurses who served in France or Belgium between 5 August 1914 and 22/23 November 1914. Ribbon: red, white and blue.
1914-1915 Star (also nicknamed Pip)– for the 2 million men who served in a theatre of war before 31 December 1915, but who didn’t qualify for the 1914 Star. Ribbon: as for 1914 Star.
British War Medal 1914-1920 (nicknamed Squeak) – 6.5 million were awarded, for 28 days’ mobilised service. Ribbon: central orange, with blue, black and white border stripes.
Victory Medal 1914-1919 (nicknamed Wilfred) – was awarded for active service in a theatre of war between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918. 6.3 million were awarded. Ribbon: rainbow.
Each serviceman’s name, rank, number and unit were inscribed, on the reverse of the stars and rims of the medals.
Mercantile Marine War Medal 1914-1918 was awarded to 133,000 members of the Merchant Navy who sailed in at least one war zone and served for at least six months. Ribbon: green and red (representing port and starboard) with white central stripe.
Silver War Badge – awarded to 1.1 million servicemen who were injured and no longer able to fight. Inscribed ‘For King and Empire Services Rendered’.
World War II campaign awards
Eight different campaign stars were awarded in World War II, and the most someone could receive was five. If they qualified for more, this was shown by a clasp on the nearest relevant medal (eg a Burma clasp on a Pacific medal ribbon). In addition they could qualify for the Defence and War medals.
1939-45 Star – for six months’ active service (two months for aircrew) between 3 September 1939 and 2 September 1945. Ribbon: dark blue, red and light blue (representing the Navy, Army and Air Force respectively).
Atlantic Star – for six months at sea 3 September 1939 to 8 May 1945 (or two months operational). Ribbon: blue, white and green (representing the colours of the Atlantic).
Africa Star – for one day operational service in North Africa between 10 June 1940 and 12 May 1943. Ribbon: buff background (for sand) with a dark blue, red (central) and light blue stripe.
Pacific Star – for operational service in the Pacific Theatre 8 December 1941 and 2 September 1945. Ribbon: green and yellow central stripes (for jungle and sand), bordered by dark blue, red and light blue stripes.
Burma Star – for one day operational service, or one sortie for aircrew (six months for Naval personnel) in the Burma Campaign. Ribbon: red, bordered by dark blue and yellow stripes.
Italy Star – for operational service in the Italian, eastern Mediterrean region, 1943-1945. Ribbon: red and white striped, with green central stripe.
France and Germany Star – for service in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Germany from D-Day to 8 May 1945. Ribbon: dark blue and white striped, with red central stripe.
Air Crew Europe Star – for two months operational flying, having already qualified for the 1939-1945 Star. Ribbon: mid blue, edged with black and yellow stripes (for sky, night sky and enemy search lights).
Defence Medal – for military and some civilian UK-based roles. Ribbon: orange central, with green and black edging stripes (for green fields and blackout).
War Medal – for Armed Forces or Merchant Navy for at least 28 days (Merchant Navy service must be at sea) between 3 September 1939 and 2 September 1945. Ribbon: red, white and dark blue.
Conspicuous bravery by an individual could win them a gallantry award – from the Victoria Cross down to a ‘Mention in Despatches’. Personnel mentioned in despatches could wear an oak leaf on their medal ribbon. Those awarded the same award more than once would wear a bar on the relevant gallantry
Details of gallantry awards were published in the London Gazette and can be searched at www.london-gazette.co.uk. While millions of campaign medals were awarded, a gallantry award is found much less frequently, for instance, only 628 Victoria Crosses were awarded throughout World War I.
Ordering a medal
Replacements of medals issued after 1920 can be ordered from Armed Services Medal Office at Ministry of Defence Medal Office, Innsworth House, Imjin Barracks, Gloucester GL3 1HW; www.gov.uk/the-ministry-of-defence-medal-office. They can no longer be ordered for those issued before this date, however replicas are available for sale (try searching the internet).