DEEDS OF HEROES The Story of the Distinguished Conduct Medal 1854-1993

I occasionally travel to work with a colleague, who, by coincidence, reviews albums for a rock music website. While I might often find common ground with his music, he is no lover of anything martial but was moved to tell me, when he saw this book, that his great uncle Albert had won the DCM fighting the Italians in North Africa. “What happened to the medal?” I asked. He wasn’t definite, but assumed his aunt had it. I advised him that he should honour his great uncle, a true man of valour.

Matthew Richardson offers up an embarrassment of riches in his excellent history of the Distinguished Conduct Medal. This was an award for other ranks which stood immediately behind the VC in order of precedence for much of its tenure and remains a hugely respected award.  It’s inevitable that some holders received their awards instead of a Victoria Cross, but, as the author points out, Churchill himself believed it to be a medal harder to win than the ultimate prize.  

The strength of the book is a procession of pen portraits of a long list of holders from the Crimea to Iraq. We learn that while the majority were for valour in combat, some were awarded for distinguished service. One winner was an army baker who stayed at his oven through the thick and thin of the Great War.  It is interesting to see how the criteria for winning the award changed and the impact of the inception of the Military Medal. We learn that the majority of Tommies in that war saw the MM as a poor relation to the DCM, while today, we consider the former to have a mythology of it’s own.

In 1993 John Major and his chums came over all egalitarian and swept rank (and thus “class”) based honours away and brought in the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross open to all. The new award sounds punchier for a modern media drenched world whereas the DCM reaches out to show all that was best of an army from our past. When I visit a war cemetery with friends, my mate Geoff is in the habit of calling out the DCMs. The truth is that all the people buried in foreign fields, and often in good old Blighty matter, but there is something about a soldier with a DCM. One who springs to mind is Frank Bourne, a colour sergeant of the 24th at Rorke’s Drift buried in Beckenham, who while his true self was somewhat younger and less taciturn than the chap we know from Zulu, remains a hero of that stunning defence. His grave reminds us he was the last survivor and, like other DCM holders, he fades away at a Jurassic pace like all the soldiers we love seem to do.

Matthew Richardson deserves credit for this wonderful book. Even if you are not interested in medals, the portraits he writes bring a truly glorious group to light and it would be nice to see works like this for other award winners we revere.

Mark Barnes

The Story of the Distinguished Conduct Medal 1854-1993
By Matthew Richardson
Published in hardback by Pen & Sword Military £19.99
ISBN: 978 1 84884 374 5

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.