PUBLISHED: 17:57 22 June 2009 | UPDATED: 15:34 20 February 2013
The story of Britain's military and naval heritage is revealed in its rich collection of campaign medals.
One of the most interesting and entertaining forms of collecting is the formation of a collection of campaign medals, which represent Britain's proud heritage of naval and military achievements over the past 400 years. The possession of one of these medals evokes a memory of a particular war, campaign or battle and a particular regiment, officer or man, and also wonderful deeds of gallantry and heroism that thrilled a nation.
For example, the famous victory of Wellington over Napoleon at Waterloo, the heroic Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava in the Crimean War, the equally daring defence of Rorke's Drift and the costly, heavy defeat at Isandhlwana, both against the Zulus in South Africa in 1879, to name but a few.
Campaign medals are medallic awards, awarded to members of the Armed Services and occasionally to members of civil institutions for taking part in a campaign or service in time of war. The medals were made, usually of silver, at the Royal Mint or the Calcutta Mint and were awarded within a year or so of the event. Clasps or bars are sometimes seen attached to the ribbon on the medal, the recipient having taken part in a particular action or battle within a campaign e.g. Sebastopol/ Inkerman/ Balaklava/ Alma on Crimean War medals. Most British medals are named to the recipient either impressed by machine or hand engraved around the rim, although all the medals issued in World War II were usually un-named.
One of the most desirable medals and much sought after by collectors is the Waterloo medal of 1815. This is generally considered to be the first campaign award. It was the first award to be given to every soldier regardless of rank who was present within a defined area. It was also the first to be machine named (around the rim) with the soldier's rank, name and regiment and the first medal to be awarded to the next of kin of casualties. However, in all probability, the first British awards for war service were handed out in small numbers after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and possibly served as naval rewards. There was a gap then of many years until the English Civil War in the 1640s when several military rewards were struck in silver by the parliamentary commanders, the Earls of Essex and Manchester, general Sir Thomas Fairfax, Sir William Waller etc. These were followed by the Commonwealth naval medal of 1649 - 1650 and the Battle of Dunbar military reward medal of 1650.
In the reign of Charles II, the naval action against the Dutch in 1665 is commemorated by two medals, which may have served as naval rewards. In the 18th Century, there were a number of medals or rewards issued by private individuals or companies, notably by the honourable East India Company, General Elliot and General Picton and, in the early 19th Century, Alexander Davison's medals for the Battles of the Nile and Trafalgar. There were a great number of campaigns and battles fought throughout the 19th Century, beginning with the Napoleonic Wars, but the soldiers and sailors who had taken part in them did not receive an official medal. It was not until 1847 that the Military General Service medal was instituted and issued in 1848 to the survivors of the land battles between 1793 and 1814. In the same year, 1847, the Naval General Service medal was instituted and issued to naval veterans, survivors of the French wars. Both medals had to be claimed and over 25,600 men claimed the M.G.S. and just under 21,000 the Naval General Service.
There were 29 clasps authorised for the M.G.S. with 15 clasps being the maximum awarded to one man. However, because of the Navy's predominant role in the French wars, there were more actions to record and 231 clasps were authorised for the Naval General Service. In 1851, the last of the medals authorised in connection with the Napoleonic Wars was instituted and awarded to surviving veterans of the battles and campaigns in India and Burma between 1803 and 1826. Only 4,500 medals were claimed and therefore the Army of India medal is very scarce and much sought after. Collectors tend to concentrate on one campaign or one war, be it Afghanistan 1839 - 1842 and 1878 - 1880 or India 1840 - 1850 and 1857 - 1859, the
Russian War of 1854 - 1856 involving the 'famous/infamous' action 'The Charge of the Light Brigade', the actions in South Africa 1835 - 1879 and later from 1890 to 1906 including the Boer War of 1899 - 1902.
The Great War or World War I, 1914 - 1918, involved millions of men so the medals are fairly common and turn up frequently at auction. Sometimes with the WWI medals there will be a large bronze plaque - the memorial or death plaque which was awarded to the families of personnel killed - and this adds value to the medals.
After 'the war to end all wars', World War I, came World War II and again involved millions of men and women. Most of the medals awarded were usually issued un-named to save on expenditure but the small cardboard box and documents which came with the medals does add value.
Derek Ainsworth is Coins, Medals and Watches specialist at Halls, Shrewsbury. Halls' next sale of fine pictures, jewellery, watches and silver is at the Welsh Bridge salerooms in Shrewsbury on November 5. Entries are now being accepted for an antique furniture, ceramics and works of art sale on December 3 and a collective sale on December 12. Contact 01743 284777 for further details.