British Commemorative Medals

The wide array of commemorative medals is matched by the metal used to make them. Everything from gold to tin based pewter has been used and this is reflected in the variety of recipients – servicemen and women, civilians and even children at parades or street parties. Some were allocated by lottery. One such was Queen Elizabeth’s coronation medal (above). There is a story of a guardsman who trained for weeks to take part in the whole parade and ceremony. He didn’t get a medal but his ex-guardsman father who watched it all on television did.

Some commemorative medals were given away at street parties and local events. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the ones to look out for are those of gold or silver but in particular if they are named. Ones awarded to smaller towns normally bear the mayor’s name. Commonwealth medals were made in fewer numbers so these are also worth keeping an eye out for. It’s worth noting though that many of these medals originally had no ribbon attached. Either the body awarding them or the recipient might add them later so they looked better. For this reason the ribbons are far more varied than the medals!

This last group (of three medals) is (from left) a Northern Ireland General Service Medal, a 2003 Iraq medal (both of these are named) and a 1952-2002 Golden Jubilee medal. Although it was issued unnamed, the Jubilee medal adds more value to the group than it would on its own. A safer way to avoid being landed with a fake is to buy one boxed with its issue card though.

The Operational Service Medal

operational-service-medal-afghanistan

Continuing our series on the different types of UK medals, this week we have a campaign medal. These denote participation in specific military operations since the early 19th century but this particular example is for action in Afghanistan since 2001. Its forerunner would have been The Afghanistan Medal of 1878-1880.

The changing nature of warfare has seen a marked increase in the role and significance of support services, some of them civilians. This campaign was the first time that a different version of the medal was struck for combat personnel – shown here with plastic presentation box.

The recipient’s name is shown on the edge of the medal. Since 2005 machine lasers have been used to do this so, regrettably, it’s important to be on the lookout for forgeries.

This is not a military medal

This is the Military Medal. It comes under the category of a decoration, a medal awarded to an individual “for acts of gallantry and devotion to duty under fire”. The Military Medal was restricted to bravery shown in land battles although members of the navy and air force who found themselves contributing in these unusual circumstances were also eligible. Recipients included women from 1916 onwards and anyone so decorated can add MM after their name. Chris Ryan and Andy McNab generally don’t though.

In one episode of Dad’s Army the platoon fell out with Private Godfrey when he revealed that he was a conscientious objector. When it later emerged that he had won the Military Medal for his bravery as a stretcher bearer he was feted as the unit’s most decorated member.

Usually, anyone in receipt of this award would also have earned other medals. Sadly, many families who fell on hard times in the 1920’s had to sell it simply for the weight of silver it contained. For this reason, single Military Medals usually start in the £250 – £450 bracket. Values double if the medal is complemented by the soldier’s full entitlement group. Military Medals awarded to support corps personnel are usually worth less – not because of any slight on their contribution, simply because many more people worked in that role.

Medal Collecting 101

royal-navy-medals-campaign-blue-peter

Interested in medals but don’t know where to start? Here are ten tips to help you earn your stripes:

  1. As with stamps, or currency, collectors tend to focus on the medals of one particular country.  Fortunately, the field for British awards is particularly wide and a named medal allows for research. Being able to verify a medal’s origin (with Army records, citations or personal letters) can add much to both its significance and its value.
  2. Condition is of huge importance. A mint condition piece in its original box with original documentation and/or photograph is the ideal.
  3. Medals should be stored carefully as many materials, including cloth, paper and plastics, actually leach corrosive gas over time. Never store them in a sunlit position.
  4. There are generally six types of medal: decoration, campaign, long and meritorious service, commemorative, unofficial and foreign ones. Those awarded to individuals who distinguished themselves in some way are much more prized by collectors than campaign ones given to people who took part in a particular conflict, battle or theatre of war.  
  5. The first medals were issued in 1810 to officers during the Peninsular War against Napoleon.  Generally, officers’ medals fetch higher prices than those of ordinary soldiers.
  6. Wearing the medal of a deceased relative as a way of remembering them is fine but pretending to be the recipient is an offence.  It’s also illegal for a serviceman/woman to sell their medals while still in the armed forces.
  7. Medals associated with famous engagements, like the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Battle of Britain and the Zulu War, fetch particularly high prices.  A clasp or bar might be attached to a medal’s ribbon show the recipient’s participation in specific (named) campaigns. 
  8. A Great War Victory Medal is an affordable first piece for your collection – they start at about £12, depending on condition.
  9. The Victoria Cross (instituted by its namesake in 1856) remains Britain’s highest military decoration.  Tradition had it that these medals were struck from the bronze of Russian cannon captured during the Crimean War. With just 1,538 awarded, prices regularly exceed £100,000.
  10. As with all other collectables, fakes are sometimes offered for sale so it is important to check an item’s authenticity as thoroughly as possible before parting with any money. 
The reverse of a nice group of Royal Navy medals: a Great War campaign trio and, far left, a long service medal known in the service as a ‘Blue Peter’.

We’ll be covering all of the major categories of medal mentioned in point 4 over the next few weeks so this is a great opportunity to get started in a field which is becoming ever more popular.  Our thanks to Michael Burroughs, one of our leading militaria dealers who will have the featured pieces for sale this Saturday at Charing Cross Collectors Market.

The Goldfish Club

Anyone with a spare £1,150 can join the Groucho Club in London. But no amount of money can buy you membership of the Goldfish Club. The brainchild of C. A. Robertson, who was Chief Draughtsman at the (then) largest air-sea rescue equipment manufacturer in the world, this status could only be conferred on airmen whose lives had been saved by a life jacket or dinghy. Gold signified the value of human life with the fish obviously referring to the water.

From its inception in 1942 the club fluorished as air crew in the unfortunate position of having to ditch over the sea discovered a silver, or rather, gold lining to their situation. Members were given a laminated card (designed to survive their next encounter with the water) and a silk badge. The original material for these was donated by readers of the London Daily Express who gave up their evening dress suits for the cause. Although uniform regulations meant that they couldn’t be openly worn, most airmen had them sewn under the flap of their left hand breast pocket. By the end of the war the Goldfish Club had almost ten thousand members and it remains active today https://tinyurl.com/y3qh4cbc

Another typically unusual find from charingcrossmarket.com – every Saturday in the heart of Central London.

Insignia of the Westminster Rifles

Originally formed after the French invasion scare of 1859, the Queen’s Westminster Rifles were an infantry regiment in the British Army for the next 101 years.  It served with distinction in both wars playing a part in both the Battle of the Somme and El Alamein.

Seen here are two RB (Rifle Brigade) patches, the dark green one being worn on the side of the tropical Sikh headgear, the pugri, while the khaki one was stitched on the shoulder. KRR denotes the King’s Royal Rifles while the red hand is from an ulster formation. The beautiful silver detailing of the George and dragon scene is taken from the front of a WWI officer’s cap. 

Military patches and insignia have always had their devotees but this branch of militaria is becoming ever more popular.  Start your own collection or enhance an existing one this Saturday at Charing Cross Collectors Market.

Unseen Nazi Photos Emerge from Russian Archives

hitler rohm meeting photograph

As the ‘race to Berlin’ in 1945 was won by the rampaging Red Army, it was almost inevitable that Stalin’s troops would transport anything significant back to Moscow. Allegedly, that included Hitler’s corpse. Yet among the bureaucratic record of his dictatorship was a treasure trove of unpublished glass plate photographs. These had been deemed unsuitable for release by the Nazis at the time but many provide a fascinating glimpse of the life of Hitler and his inner circle.

The most valuable of these images bear the Russian Communist archive stamp on the reverse of the paper, usually Leonar or Brovira as seen here. This example shows Hitler smoking cigars at a meeting with Ernst Röhm. Although there is no date, it was certainly taken before June 1934 when he had the SA leader murdered during the Night of the Long Knives!

Cheaper Now Than In 1939

RAD Nazi women badges

This fine collection of women’s Nazi work service badges will be on sale this Saturday at Charing Cross Market. Prices vary but it will certainly not cost you six months’ work of up to 76 hours a week.

The Reich Labour Service or RAD was set up in 1935 as a way of managing unemployment in Germany. It was compulsory for men but voluntary for women until war broke out. Most women worked on farms, factories or in domestic service. With no real wages on offer, the Nazis created a hierarchy of badges to motivate and reward them.

They fall into one of three types: the Arbeitsmaid (bronze worker), the Maidenführer (silver leader) and the Lagerführer (camp leader). Design changes mean we can date them all to particular (war) years. The ‘iron grade’ badges bottom right were awarded from 1941 on completion of six months war service in addition to six months as a ‘volunteer’.

Earn Your Stripes this Saturday

militaria advertisement charing cross market

Whether it’s your first foray into collecting or you’re a seasoned militaria veteran, you’re sure to find something to spark your interest this weekend at Charing Cross Collectors Market. Browse to your heart’s content among the medals, uniforms, patches, de-activated ordnance, battle reports, insignia and other paraphenalia which has found its way down the decades to a stall in central London. Just holding items like these in your hands can summon up a sense of time and place which you may only have read about in the history books. And if militaria isn’t your thing, we have lots of other dealers who specialise in postcards, stamps, coins, ephemera and ethnography.

It’s not every day that you can see such a cornucopia of the unusual and unique. It’s just Saturdays. Between 7am and 3pm. At Charing Cross Market.

Trench Art Matchbox Covers

It may seem incredible to us now but only a hundred years ago smoking was widely regarded as benificial to health. Governments praised its effects on morale whilst also pointing to the soothing effects of lighting up after periods of action or enduring intense bombardments. There is no doubt that it encouraged mateyness – sharing a fag being an easy way to strike up friendships and official estimates of December 1914 state that over 96% of British soldiers were smokers. At a time before automatic lighters, that meant looking after your matches as much as your smokes – no easy job in a muddy trench for weeks at a time.

Many soldiers stored their matchboxes in brass or copper covers like those pictured so they wouldn’t be crushed in a pocket. Often, having lots of time on their hands, they would personalise or decorate them in some way. The most valuable show the chap’s name and service number as their war record can then be confirmed with the national archives.

The aluminium(?) cover in the photo is unusual in that it shows a German prisoner of war pushing a loaded wheelbarrow below the words “comm on Fritz”. It belonged to “R J Elliott of 322 Q Coy” – Q Company being the poison gas unit of the Royal Engineers. Typical examples sell for £15 – £20 but this one is more likely to fetch three times that.

A footnote to this item is the popular superstition that it is bad luck to light three cigarettes from one match. This is supposed to have originated during the Great War when an enemy sniper would be alerted to a target’s location as the first cigarette is lit, ready his rifle and adjust range for the second before taking aim and firing at the third. It’s a neat story and would seem to make a lot of sense. Yet no references to the bad luck associated with “three on a match” have been found before 1919 so there goes another myth!