BRITISH MILITARY MEDALS
A Guide for the Collector and Family Historian
Pen & Sword Family History
ISBN: 978 1 78303 016 3
Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online
I wrote off to the MoD for my Dad’s Second World War medals in 1975. He had never received them and wasn’t really fussed. His war had been against illness. Having been a Territorial soldier in 1939 he spent time in the UK waiting for deployment while carrying out home defence duties on the North Sea coast. His battalion were part of the Persia and Iraq Force and then he went to India where he caught malaria and nearly died being treated at Poona. While there he developed tuberculosis and was shipped to the dry atmosphere of South Africa to recover. His health was destroyed and these illnesses affected him for the remainder of his life until he died twenty-one years ago. Disease ruined his war in terms of experiencing combat; but perversely, it kept him alive and I have to be grateful, don’t I? Nearly all the lads from his TA company of the Royal Berkshire Regiment died in Italy. So, when the little cardboard box arrived in the post my Dad was hugely underwhelmed to receive the Defence Medal and the War Medal. He never looked at them again but I keep them now as cherished symbols of my father and his service.
Medals are curious things. I’ve never felt an urge to collect them, but knowing all about the plethora of campaign stars, clasps and the rainbow of ribbons is solid general knowledge of the old sort and I am always glad to build on what I know. The book describes awards dating back to the days of Cromwell and continues through the expansion of the East India Company to the much sought after Waterloo Medal issued to the British participants of the battle in 1815. It becomes something of a souvenir guide to the history of the British Empire as it spread across the world. I have learned to identify colourful medal ribbons in black and white photographs and although some are a lot easier than others, there is always much to learn. This book has a mixture of both mono and colour photos and although it shows a wide range of medal groupings I would like to see examples of ribbon bars to help me further.
Although we see examples of all of them, the book doesn’t attempt to swamp us with the best known gallantry awards. The author recognises that the vast majority of medals were issued to the unsung heroes of our history, the anonymous participants who were distinguished by just being there. You might have some stashed away like I do, reflecting your own family’s service for their country. They can be seen in those old photos we cherish and you will always find the more common awards on sale at militaria events and even in junk shops or boot fairs. It is astounding what collectors will pay for the things and I think it is very sad that many recent awards from my country’s modern adventures are sold by recipients or their families, often because they need the money. It’s an age old story and it shows that for all our brilliance, nothing much has changed. For what they’re worth, I would never dream of selling my family history. My Dad’s medals will be passed down to my son when the time comes and I know he will take good care of them.
This book is aimed at collectors and family historians alike. It does a good job. I like the additional information, showing examples of medal rolls and individual service records so we can see something of the bureaucracy of military life. You’ll see a serviceman’s medal index card of the Great War, something you can find in abundance if you subscribe to the appropriate ancestry website. There is information about books and all the official records and what you can find out on the internet. As such, it is a very useful book to have in your library. P&S have been quite active on the medals front, with books on the highly regarded Distinguished Conduct Medal, the George Cross and even the Blue Max. This one complements the others perfectly. I expect we’ll see more and they will be welcomed.