War history: Did your relative earn a rare bravery medal for action in First World War?

Germanys Kaiser Wilhelm II. His dismissal of 'General Frenchs contemptible little Army' showed how

Germanys Kaiser Wilhelm II. His dismissal of 'General Frenchs contemptible little Army' showed how he fatally underestimated the skills and backbone of Britain's soldiers. - Credit: Archant

Did a soldier in your family have a medal? Galloway’s resident military historian, Mike Peters, looks at the story behind a relatively rare First World War campaign medal that readers might well have come across. Some might even own one awarded to a brave relative...

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vccxvzvvv - Credit: Archant

In previous weeks I have talked about the Regular Army of 1914, The Suffolk Regiment and the exploits of men who made up the British Expeditionary Force that crossed the English Channel in August, 1914. Sadly, the media and the UK Government have largely ignored the contribution of the 1914 regulars, reservists and the Territorial Force as the centenary commemorations have got under way. It was the German Kaiser who referred to the BEF as a contemptible little army, making the following edict:

“It is my Royal and Imperial command that you concentrate your energies – for the immediate present – upon one single purpose and that is that you address all your skill and all the valour of my soldiers to exterminate, first, the treacherous English… walk over General French’s contemptible little Army…”

Apparently, a copy of the order fell into British hands during the Battle of the Marne. The British army became aware of the message when a translation of the document was included in the routine Orders of the Day on September 24. When it was read out to the assembled ranks, the officers and men of the British Expeditionary Force reacted with typical army humour and began to call themselves the Old Contemptibles.

In order to be considered a contemptible, a soldier must have received the 1914 Star, often referred to as the Mons Star. This week’s column explains what the 1914 Star actually is.

The issuing of medals by the British and Commonwealth armies on a large scale has not been common practice for as long a time as readers might presume.

The presentation of specially-struck medals as a token of gratitude, or in recognition of an individual act of bravery, has gone on for centuries. However, the first real issue of a medal for every participant in a battle took place after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

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Keen to mark the final victory over Napoleon, the British Government approved the striking of a Waterloo medal and the recording of the names of those officers and soldiers who had fought in the battle and who were therefore entitled to wear it. These men were from that point referred to as a Waterloo Man.

In the Victorian period, medals for military service became more common and the issue of a campaign medal, with a bar denoting service at a specific battle during that campaign, was introduced.

The 1914 Star medal was awarded to all officers, warrant officers, non-commissioned officers and all men of the British and Indian forces ? including civilian medical practitioners, nursing sisters, nurses and others employed with military hospitals, as well as men of the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Royal Naval Reserve and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve ? who served in France and Belgium between August 5, 1914, and midnight of November 22/23, 1914.

The medal consists of a bronze star, the uppermost ray taking the form of the imperial crown. Resting on the face of the star is a pair of crossed swords, and, on them, is a circular oak wreath. A scroll winds around the swords: it is inscribed with the date “Aug.- Nov. 1914.” The ribbon is red, merging into white and then blue. The Government ordered 2,600,000 yards of ribbon to accompany the medals! Each of the 378,000 recipients was given four inches.

If you do come across a long-lost Star in the proverbial biscuit tin in your loft, or sadly, as has happened, discarded in a dustbin, you can easily identify the original owner, as the soldier’s regiment and number are inscribed on the rear face.

A little bit of knowledge can help you learn more about the original owner. A bar clasp inscribed “5 Aug. to 22 Nov. 1914” was given to all those who qualified for the 1914 Star and who served under fire. Since the same medal ribbon is used with the later 1914-15 Star, holders of the 1914 Star were permitted to wear a small silver rosette on their ribbon when the decoration itself was not worn.

If your research takes you as far as locating the medal index card, this bar is usually noted on the card as the “Clasp and Roses” or “C&R”. It was necessary for the medal holder to apply for the issue of the clasp. Not all did.

At the end of the war, recipients received their medal, along with the Victory Medal and the War Medal. A combination of one of the campaign stars and the two war medals was known as trios. More than 2.5m were issued. This particular combination was given the nickname “Pip, Squeak and Wilfred”, after popular cartoon characters in the Daily Mirror.

Sadly, reduced trios consisting of a Star and Victory Medal are seen more often these days. This is reputed to be because the British War Medal, with silver content, was more valuable and many former soldiers or their families sold the medal when times were hard.

If you do have a Mons Star or a trio in your possession, please be aware of its value, but, more importantly, please consider how hard-earned it was and treasure it for that reason. The officers and soldiers of that contemptible little army were cast from an exceptional material and they deserve recognition for all they did in 1914.

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