Military medals are objects awarded to members of the armed forces in recognition of service and high achievements. They are small flat pieces of metal, stamped or engraved with a design that often features an image and an inscription.
There are two different types of award:
- Decoration: is a medal awarded for a specific act of bravery or heroism
- Service award (or campaign medal): is given for a period of service in a particular location or period of time. Medals are generally presented to a recipient at a formal ceremony and can also be awarded posthumously to those killed in the line of duty.
The Roman empire used a system of military awards to recognise bravery, such as a series of crowns, gold necklets and armbands, ceremonial silver spears and the phalerae, a disc made from gold, silver or bronze and worn of the breastplate during parades. This practice declined with the fall of the Roman empire, but was revived during the early modern period, and medals began to be worn on the chest as part of military uniform.
First campaign medal
The first record of a campaign medal awarded to all ranks appears in 1650, when the Dunbar Medal was awarded to officers and soldiers who served under Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Dunbar.
Earliest military decoration
The earliest military decoration ever awarded in the United States is the Fidelity Medallion, created by act of the Continental Congress in 1780. It was awarded to three soldiers from the New York Militia who participated in the capture of Major John André of the British army, who had been the contact to Benedict Arnold and had helped organise his defection.
Two years later, in 1782, the Badge of Military Merit (forerunner to the Purple Heart) was created by General George Washington, for soldiers who exhibited “not only instances of unusual gallantry in battle, but also extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way".
After the American revolution it fell into disuse, but in 1932 the United States War Department authorised the new Purple Heart Medal as the official successor decoration to the Badge of Military Merit.
Legion of honour
In 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte established the Legion of Honour to reward both soldiers and civilians for bravery or exceptional service to their country. Soon after in 1808 the British army issued the Army Gold Medal to officers with a rank of battalion commander or higher for successful commands during recent campaigns (such as the Peninsular War of 1807 – 1814).
In 1813 the Iron Cross was founded in Breslau by the Kingdom of Prussia to be awarded to soldiers during the Wars of Liberation against Napoleon.
Waterloo Medal and Victoria Cross
Main article: Victoria Cross
In 1815, the Waterloo Medal became the first medal ever awarded to all combatants present at a battle, for their part in the Battle of Waterloo. It was the first occasion since 1650 that a campaign medal had been awarded to all ranks of the British army for their efforts.
The Victoria Cross was introduced in 1856 by Queen Victoria to honour acts of valour and gallantry during the Crimean War. The first ceremony was held on 26 June 1857 where Queen Victoria invested 62 of the 111 Crimean recipients in a ceremony in Hyde Park.
Medal of Honour
Five years later, in 1862, the Medal of Honour, the highest military decoration awarded by the United States government, was created and signed into law by Abraham Lincoln. It was intended for soldiers fighting the American civil war, and was awarded “to such non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities, during the present insurrection”.
World War I
The first World War saw the inception of the British War Medal 1914-20 by King George V in 1920, along with the issue of Victory Medal 1914-19 to all Allied soldiers by their own governments. The US created similar medals and decorations at this time, including the Distinguished Service Medal (1918).
World War II
The second World War brought the creation of several British campaign medals including the 1939–45 Star, the Africa Star, the Defence Medal (awarded for both military and civilian service) and the War Medal 1939–1945. It also saw the creation of the George Cross, a civilian counterpart of the Victoria Cross, which was awarded for the highest gallantry not in the face of the enemy or for which purely military honours would not normally be granted. 1938 also saw the creation of the Russian Medal of Valour.
See our list of notable medals for information on other collectible military awards.
Collectors are fascinated with military medals. Each represents a unique story of bravery and valour, of rising to the occasion, and acts as a time capsule of that moment in history.
The hobby of medal collecting is often linked to the study of military history, as medals with a detailed provenance and story attached to them (in the form of militaria such as documents and manuscripts, diaries and photographs) are worth more than those without.
Medal collectors will often research the background of different medals and the people they were awarded to in order to find such provenance. Such collections can offer important insights into military history on a personal level.
Collectors will usually choose a particular area on which to focus their collection, such as a specific war, battle or regiment. They may also collect examples of a specific medal itself, such as the Victoria Cross or the Pacific Star. Some collectors decide to collect a group of medals, such as one of every British campaign. Many collectors focus on the medals of one country in particular, such as Soviet medals. It is a good idea to specialise in this way, especially as a new collector, as medals are a broad area, and need some narrowing of scope.
It is extremely useful to look through old auction catalogues to research medals that have sold before, and inform you of value and rarity.
The language of medal collecting can be quite particular. Familiarise yourself with the main terms using our list of medal collecting terms.
Where to find
You can find medals at auction, through specialist dealers, in antique shops, thrift stores, garage sales, flea markets, and online via eBay. Check out our list of medal dealers to find a reputable specialist in your area.
Always make sure any medal you buy comes from a trusted source, and preferably with a certificate of authenticity and/or letter of provenance. This way, you should avoid the majority of fakes on the market.
The world’s most expensive military medal
The most expensive military medal ever sold at auction was the Double Victoria Cross awarded to Liverpool-born British Army officer Noel Godfrey Chavasse.
He was first awarded the Victoria Cross in 1916 during the first world war, and a bar was added after he displayed heroism under fire in Belgium. He died during the battle, and the cross was added posthumously in 1917. It was the only double VC awarded during the first world war, and one of only three in history.
The medal was bought by Victoria Cross collector Lord Ashcroft in 2009 for a world-record price of £1.5m.
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