A Medal Isn’t Always A Medal
Strange thing to say you’re thinking. Well, it’s true. In the British military at least, a medal isn’t always a medal. Rather the term ‘medal’ is commonly used to refer to one of three awards – an order, a decoration or (you guessed it) a medal.
The first type of order – a great British institution
The first type of order is as British as HP sauce or a red telephone box. It’s an honour awarded by the British monarchy or government to individuals (civilian and military) in recognition of their contribution to the nation or humanity as a whole.
There are two parts to an order. First, the recipient is given an often elaborate insignia (the ‘medal’) which is typically worn with a sash. Secondly, the recipient is provided with the privilege of signaling their honour through the use of a title such as ‘Sir’ or a series of letters which can be placed after their name such as OBE or CBE.
Which brings us to the other important point about an order – the hierarchy. There are five orders which can be awarded. In descending order of hierarchical importance these are:
Knight or Dame Grand Cross (GBE)
Knight or Dame Commander (KBE/DBE)
Commander of the British Empire (CBE)
Officer of the British Empire (OBE)
Member of the British Empire (MBE)
The highest two of these ranks – GBE and KBE/DBE – are members of the knighthood which entitles them to use the title ‘Sir’ or ‘Dame’ provided they are a citizen of a territory where the British monarch is Head of State. If the recipient doesn’t meet these criteria they can use the letters GBE, KBE or DBE after their name but not the title. So that’s why Richard Branson and Rudy Giuliani, two well known holders of the KBE Order, are known as Sir Richard Branson and Rudy Giuliani KBE.
Although orders of this type were awarded to military officers throughout history, it was not until the Crimean War that separate awards were created to recognise the individual acts of gallantry being performed by the soldiers of the British Army. Which brings us to the second type of order.
The second type of order – a military affair
Whilst the orders described above are perhaps best known, there are other orders such as the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) which are exclusively for award to military personnel. These awards confer similar benefits to their predominantly civilian counterparts. A ‘medal’ with ribbon (but no sash) is received, membership of an exclusive organisation given (such as Companions of the Distinguished Service Order) and the privilege of using letters after one’s name provided (for example, DSO). Unlike a civilian order however, a military order such as the DSO is usually given in recognition of a particular action such as meritorious service during wartime rather than a lifetime of service.
A decoration – the highest military honour
When most people think of British military medals they think of the Victoria Cross. But this is not a medal. It’s actually a decoration.
A decoration is often a very simple, unassuming metal cross or star suspended on a colourful ribbon which is worn on the left chest. This simplicity however is very modest when one considers why a decoration such as the Victoria Cross is awarded – for particular actions such as extreme bravery or self sacrifice.
And finally, the medal
In contrast to a decoration, a medal is typically awarded for participation in a campaign, battle or conflict rather than specific actions. It is a recognition of having served in a particular event rather than having taken a particular action and is often referred to as a ‘campaign medal’ or ‘service medal’. For example, the British War Medal was awarded to army personnel and civilians that either entered a theatre of war or served overseas between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918.
So, it’s true you see. A medal isn’t always a medal.
Andrew is an amateur military enthusiast and a contributor to The Militarium. This article and others concerning military medals, history and genealogy can be found on The Militarium – Militaria dealers, events and medal identification tools
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