A Life of Service

It’s always nice to find a well looked after grouping like this with all the chap’s badges properly arranged. He started off as a shoeing smith in the Royal Field Artillery, saw service at Mons and the star records his very unusual distinction of being in the Maltese R. G. A. (Musketry) in 1908. The pinnacle of his military career saw him reach the rank of staff sergeant in the Royal Artillery. But my own favourite is the nicely crafted brass pin in the shape of a bullet or shell.

The Past Looks Back

Postcard portraits of pre-revolutionary Imperial Russian soldiers and sailors

For all their straight-backed formality from a bygone age, there’s no denying that really looking into the eyes of someone long dead in photographs like these is still an oddly personal experience. Who was this person? What was going through their mind as they sat motionless for the photographer? And, above all, why didn’t they smile?

Any forces personnel posing in uniform but off duty today would more than likely be sporting a huge grin or at least some indication that they were pleased to be in uniform. Yet these men look at best pensive and at worst downright miserable, an interpretation which might well suit someone who is effectively a ghost.

The reasons were mainly cultural and partly technical.

In the first instance, early cameras required long exposure times and it was considerably easier to maintain a straight face than risk spoiling the frame by having to rest your face muscles. Secondly, since portrait photography was a direct descendant of portrait painting, an expressionless or inscrutable gaze was manifestly the done thing. Another reason, and possibly the one most people might guess at, is that smiling was rather frowned upon in Victorian and Edwardian society. Put simply, smiling was for idiots.

Yet theres is an even more interesting and compelling explanation for why we find the gaze of our ancestors so unsettling. While we might have every other hour of our waking lives documented in a selfie or tagged in a happy group photo with friends, photography was really quite exceptional a century ago. Many felt that it might be the only time in their lives when their likeness might be captured on film. The resulting precious photograph would immediately become a family heirloom, passed on indefinitely to kin they would never meet. This also explains the apparently macabre practice of dressing up and posing the corpse of a family member who had died unexpectedly without having previously had his or her photograph taken.

‘Haunting’ might not be the ideal word to describe the look on the monochrome faces in postcards like these. But then exactly what expression would be on your face if you knew it was one day destined to catch the eye of a casual browser in a London underground car park?

A group of French standard bearers and a rarely seen image of some WWI Turkish troops

Big Cat Formation Patches

The ferocity and power of big cats have an obvious appeal as a choice for formation signs and the first lot of three tiger heads was worn by members of the South Eastern UK Aldershot Command. Its HQ was in Reigate and its principal job was to oversee regional domestic defence in the event of invasion. It was disbanded in 1944 when the operational areas were changed and the prospect of invasion was remote.

The two other sets are (locally made) Singapore district patches showing a lion under a palm tree. Also used by British forces in Sierra Leone, they remained part of the Singapore district outfit until 1947.

Wearing your heart on your sleeve

An original British Army recruitment sergeants patch from the early 1900’s, this would have been worn on the lower arm. The crossed union flags are nicely detailed with wire and silk. At the outbreak of war in August 1914, the regular army was 700,000 strong (today it stands at 117,000 including 30,000 reservists). The government appealed for 100,000 volunteers but by the end of September they had 750,000.

Young men had to be 18 to sign up and 19 to be sent overseas to fight. The stories of young lads lying about their age in case they missed out before it was “all over by Christmas” are true. It’s estimated that over 250,000 underage boys signed up. This was facilitated by recruiting sergeants who turned a blind eye to their obvious youth and adopted a more avuncular approach quite different from their approach on the parade ground!

Rare Civil War Medallion

A real rarity this week as we feature a 350 year old silver gilt medallion made in honour of Robert Devereux. He was the third Earl of Wessex and, on the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, Parliament’s choice as the leader of their armed forces. His desire to reach an agreement with the king did not endear him to some of the more radical anti-Royalists among the MP’s though and by 1646 he had been replaced by Sir Thomas Fairfax.

Devereux was a key figure in the movement though and accorded a grand funeral at Westminster Abbey. Dying before the trial and execution of the king in 1649 had the added bonus that he was not a signatory to his death warrant. Thus he was spared the indignity of posthumous execution meted out to some of the regicides. The corpses of Cromwell, Ireton and Bradshaw were dug up, hanged, beheaded, their bodies thrown into a pit and their heads placed on a spike from a point in front of the spot where Charles I met his fate.

Yet what makes this medallion so unusual is the fact that, previously, only silver ones have been recorded. So far as we know, this silver gilt example is one of a kind but please contact us if you have any further information.

A Headturning Display

On display at Charing Cross Collectors Market last Saturday was this headturning display of antique helmets. The two buffed ones on the left are French fireman’s helmets – the furthest left dates from 1880 / 1900 while the one below it on the table is from 1900 / 1920. Cutting a dash in the middle with its distinctive Pickelhelm spike is a German lobstertail cavalry helmet from WWI while on the right is its gloriously plumed French counterpart from the second empire period (1852-70). Come along this Saturday and see our latest range of wonderful antique collectables. 8am – 2pm.

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

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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

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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.