What is a Service Medal?
A Service Medal is awarded to all those who meet a particular set of criteria. These criteria are usually that an individual has served in a specific area, usually for a specified minimum time between set dates.
There were a total of six service medals available for men and women who saw military service in the First World War.
Sometimes these are misleadingly known as ‘campaign’ medals, which actually refer to medals that were awarded for participating in a particular series of military operations in a certain area with a defined goal. However, these were not awarded in the First World War and are more relevant to medals from other wars such as the Boer or Second World War.
Who might been awarded them?
The Service Medals were awarded to the servicemen and women who met the criteria. An individual could earn between one and four, but usually received two or three.
Why were people awarded Service Medals?
Medals have been awarded to commemorate wars and battles throughout history dating back to the Roman Empire. First World War Service Medals indicate that the individual served Britain overseas during the war during a particular period or in a particular role.
Other types of medals include those awarded for bravery, long service, or a specific type of work.
The 1914 star
Also known as the Mons Star, the medal is a bronze star with a red, white and blue ribbon, reflecting the French Tricolore.
It was issued to British forces who had served in France or Belgium from 5 August 1914 (the declaration of war) to midnight 22 November 1914 (the end of the First Battle of Ypres).
These were soldiers that were there at the very beginning of the war and so it was primarily awarded to the 'Old Contemptibles', the professional pre-war soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force.
The recipient's service number, rank, name and unit were impressed on the back.
Some medals have a horizontal metal bar worn on the ribbon and inscribed '5th Aug.-22nd Nov. 1914', this distinguished those who had served under enemy fire.
This clasp was replaced by a small silver rosette when the ribbon was worn without the medal.
There were approximately 378,000 1914 Stars issued.
The 1914-15 star
This bronze medal is very similar to the 1914 Star but has the dates 1914-15 in the centre of the star.
It was issued to a much wider range of recipients. These included all who served in any theatre of war outside the UK between 5 August 1914 and 31 December 1915, except those eligible for the 1914 Star.
The recipient's service number, rank, name and unit were impressed on the reverse.
An estimated 2.4 million 1914-15 Stars were issued.
Neither the 1914 Star nor the 1914-15 Star were awarded alone. The recipient would also have received the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
British War Medal 1914-18
This silver medal was awarded to officers and men of the British and Imperial Forces who either entered a theatre of war (an area of active fighting) or served overseas (perhaps as a garrison soldier) between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918 inclusive.
This was later extended to services in Russia, Siberia and some other areas in 1919 and 1920.
The ribbon has a central band of orange edged with white, black and blue lines and although many other medal ribbons symbolise something, it seems that the colour and pattern of the British War Medal ribbon has no special significance.
The recipient's service number, rank, name and unit were inscribed on the rim of the medal.
The front depicts King George V with a latin inscription about the King, similar to what you would find on coins.
The back shows the dates of the First World War and St. George on horseback trampling underfoot the eagle shield of the central powers (German and Austro-Hungarian Empires), with a skull and cross-bones.
Approximately 6.4 million of these medals were issued, giving some indication of the scale of the First World War.
In addition around 110,000 bronze versions were issued, mainly to members of the Chinese, Maltese, Indian, and South African Native Labour Corps.
The Allied Victory Medal
The Allies each issued their own bronze victory medal but with a similar design, equivalent wording and identical ribbon.
The colours represent the combined colours of the Allied nations, with the rainbow additionally representing the calm after the storm. The ribbon consists of a double rainbow with red at the centre.
The British version depicts the winged figure of Victory on the front of the medal and on the back, it says 'The Great War for Civilisation 1914-1919’.
To qualify, an individual had to have entered a theatre of war (an area of active fighting), not just served overseas. Their service number, rank, name and unit were impressed on the rim.
Approximately 5.7 million Victory Medals were issued.
Wearing or displaying medals together
The only medal that could be awarded on its own was the British War Medal. So, if any of the other medals is found on its own, it must be a ‘split group’ i.e. other medals are missing. The British War Medal weighs an ounce; if it alone is missing from a group of medals, it might indicate that it was once pawned or sold for its scrap silver value, and melted down.
Medals should always be worn (or mounted, if displayed) in an ‘order of precedence’. You can find the ‘order of precedence’ list in the Medals Yearbook (details below) . The medal with precedence is on the left of the group when seen by someone meeting the wearer (or looking at a display).
Because the medals were worn or displayed together, some of the markings can tell us something about any missing medals. The British War Medal is silver, quite a soft medal; it often shows ‘contact marks’ if it has rubbed alongside other medals. Marks to the right of King George V’s head indicate that a Victory Medal was probably also awarded and marks to the left that probably either a 1914 or 1914–15 star was awarded.
The issue of First World War Service Medals in the 1920’s coincided with a comic strip in the Daily Mirror newspaper.
The popular cartoons featured Pip the dog, Squeak the penguin and Wilfred the rabbit.
Soon the three main campaign medals (the 1914 or 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal) were nicknamed 'Pip, Squeak and Wilfred'.
When only the British War and Victory Medals were worn together they became 'Mutt and Jeff' after another pair of cartoon characters.
The Territorial Force War Medal, 1914-1919
This bronze medal was awarded to those who were either Members of the Territorial Force or Territorial Force Nursing Service on 4 August 1914 OR members with four years or more service prior to 4 August 1914 and who rejoined by 30 September 1914 who also:
- had volunteered prior to 30 September 1914 for overseas service
- and served outside the United Kingdom between 4 August 1914 and 11 November 1918
- and who were not eligible for the 1914 Star or 1914-15 Star
The ribbon is yellow with two narrow green stripes. This bronze medal depicts George V on the front. It says 'Territorial War Medal' and 'For Voluntary Service Overseas 1914-19' on the reverse.
Only 34,000 were issued.
The Mercantile Marine War Medal
This bronze medal was awarded by the Board of Trade to members of the Merchant Navy who had served at sea for at least 6 months or sailed on at least one voyage through a war zone.
The front depicts George V and the back shows a merchant ship in stormy seas, an enemy submarine sinking and a sailing vessel with the words 'For War Service - Mercantile Marine - 1914-1918'.
The ribbon has two bands of green and red separated by a thin white stripe. The colours represent starboard and port lights with the masthead light in the centre.
A total of 133,135 were issued.
Medals can be very useful if you are trying to find out more about the person who received them. To issue and name the medals correctly, extensive records (‘medal rolls’) were compiled. The Army created an index of over 5 million cards - it is the best single source for most people starting First World War family history research, since if a soldier served overseas, they would have been eligible for at least one medal, and so would have an index card. The originals of the medal roll index cards are held at The National Archives (TNA) at Kew and their website gives a comprehensive explanation of what a medal index card can tell you.
The medal index cards have all been digitised and are available online. You can search the index of the medal roll cards for free through Lives of the First World War or The National Archives website. You can also view the digitised images of the cards themselves for a fee.
The digital searching can help with tracing where only partial details are known – such as surname and initial, rank or unit, or service number. The Medal Index Cards (or MICs) are a comprehensive and indexed source, usefully bringing together several factual elements, armed with which a researcher can know where next to try.
What about the Navy and the Royal Flying Corps/Royal Naval Air Service/Royal Air Force?
The Navy created ledgers to record the issue of First World War Service Medals, which are also digitised and indexed at the National Archives at Kew.
There are no RAF medal rolls as such at Kew, although see the sources below for more details. If the ancestor returned from overseas service with the Royal Naval Air Service or the Royal Flying Corps before they merged to form the RAF in April 1918, then they may be listed among the naval or army medal records.
Useful websites and books for further research
The National Archives [TNA]
The website has lots of great information including an introductory guide to campaign service medals, an explanation of First World War Medal Index cards and general information and tips about how to use archives.
Copies of all these books can be freely consulted from open shelves at the Explore History Centre at IWM London.
British Campaign Medals of the First World War by Peter Duckers
(Shire Publications, Oxford, 2011)
Widely available, also covers some badges and other material often found with medals, and gives guidance on researching in medal records.
The Medal Yearbook 2012, John W Mussell and editorial team of Medal News
(Token Publishing, Honiton, Devon, 2011)
A comprehensive and widely available introductory work on British medals, published annually. Well illustrated, it is useful for: orders, decorations and medals; ribbons in full colour; order of precedence, for correct mounting. for wear; some foreign awards; as might be seen in groups awarded to British First World War service personnel; adverts for the main medal dealers and medal mounting providers; valuations
Great War Medal Collectors Companion by Howard Williamson
(Anne Williamson, Harwich, Essex, 2011)
A large reference book that covers the topic in extensive detail, attractively printed in full colour. It covers not just the medals but also the boxes and envelopes of issue, as well as the numbering systems, rank and unit abbreviations, related records, and lines of further research.