The terminology and technicalities associated with medals and ribbons are outlined here, including advice on the maintenance, security and storage of medals.
- Parts of a Medal
- Medal Mounting Styles
- Safeguarding Medals
- Original & Replacement Medals
- Duplicate & Replica Medals
- Medal Maintenance & Storage
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- All decorations and medals have an OBVERSE side (the front) and a REVERSE side (the back or rear). The Obverse will often depict a bust of the Sovereign (with or without Crown/Coronet), a Royal Cypher or a Coat of Arms. The Obverse is at all times worn facing the viewer. The Reverse may be decorated, engraved or blank.
- Group – a medal group refers to four or more medals suspended from the same brooch bar, a group being greater than a single, a pair or trio of medals worn together.
- Split Group – one or more medals are missing from the group.
- Full-size – medals as issued, designed for day wear; Miniature – smaller representations of full-size medals worn with evening attire.
- Official – a medal of an officially approved design and manufacture authorised for wearing, and is included in the NZ Order of Wear.
- Original – a official medal from an original batch manufactured for issue.
- Genuine – any medal manufactured by an authorised military contractor for the purpose of official issue.
- Replacement/Duplicate – a medal subsequently approved and issued medal to replace a lost, stolen or destroyed medal. Duplicate medals are impressed with the letter (D) indicating an officially authorised duplicate medal.
- Replica/Copy – a medal purchased from a commercial replica medal manufacturer or trader, generally of a lesser quality and less expensive than an official original.
- Counterfeit/Fake – a medal (genuine or replica) that has been altered in some way, e. g. artificially aged, skimmed (original name removed), re-named or modified for the purposes of falsely representing it be a genuine/original medal.
The issue of First World War service medals in the 1920’s coincided with a popular British comic strip in the Daily Mirror newspaper. The cartoons featured PIP the dog, SQUEAK the penguin and WILFRED the rabbit. Soon the three main 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.
Parts of a medal
- Most medals now have a Ribbon Suspender or Suspension Bar rather than ring, through which the ribbon passes.
- The medal Rim is the raised part of medal’s Edge that prevents damage when the medal is laid flat.
- Most 20th Century medal naming had the details impressed (letters and numbers punched in by hand or a hand operated press) into the Edge (the flat face of the medal’s circumference), or on to the Reverse in the case of WW1 Stars and some gallantry medals. The Victoria Cross was unique in that inscriptions could be found in a variety of positions on the Reverse – early issues had details inscribed across the inner circle, between the two concentric circles, and later was standardised to the back of the ribbon suspender.
Medals – General
- MEDAL For the purposes of this reference “medal” means any medal and ribbon designed to be suspended from a medal brooch bar, whether full-size or miniature, designed for official military and civil use. Medals in the past were made from bronze, silver, copper, brass, lead or amalgams of the foregoing. Modern medals are one of three types – Silver (mainly Long Service awards); Rhodium plated (most modern campaign medals, e.g. NZ Operational Service Medal, East Timor medal) and Bronze (e. g. the NZ General Service Medals, NZ Defence Service Medal). Women may wear some of their awards suspend from a Ribbon Bow.
- Medals are worn in a single row suspended from a medal brooch bar with pin for attachment to clothing.
- Veteran men and women (not in uniform) wear their medals in same fashion. If a female’s Ribbon Bow decoration is worn, it is placed immediately above any medal brooch bar.
- The maximum width of a medal brooch bar with full-size medals attached, should be no greater than 16 cm in width (14.5 cm for miniatures), with the medals overlapped so as to be evenly spaced on the brooch bar.
- The length of a medal ribbon used to suspend a medal is cut/mounted so that the distance from the top of the ribbon to the bottom of each medal measures 9.5 cm for full-size medals (5 cm for miniatures). Adjustments are necessary to accommodate medal design. Medal ribbon width will also vary by design and manufacturer.
- DEVICE – the name given to any small metal emblem attached to a medal ribbon. These are used to denote gallantry, multiple Tours of Duty to the same operation, or the qualification of a subsequent Clasp or award.
- BAR – the term used to denote a second or subsequent award of the same medal, usually a gallantry or long service award, e. g. a Bar to the Long Service Medal (LSM) indicates a second qualifying period of service has been completed entitling the person to a Clasp used to show the second award on the same medal (it would be both impractical and unnecessary to wear a second or even third identical medal to represent subsequent qualifying periods of service). A Bar are a metal plate slightly wider than a medal ribbon, which has “ears” on either end with which to attach it to the ribbon suspender or more Clasps, in the form of a ladder and through which the medal ribbon passes. Bars are also produced without “ears” that are designed to be sewn directly on to a medal ribbon.
- A Bar awarded to the holders of a Distinguished Flying Cross, Victoria Cross, NZ Gallantry Star, NZ Bravery Medal etc for instance, denotes a second award. A Bar (approx 38 mm x 7 mm) will not normally have any wording. It is most often decorated with a pattern of flora (laurel leaves, ferns, acorns etc) or is left as a plain, shiny bar the may have an crown, crest, emblem or similar fixed central. If a Bar has been awarded, when written in text it is shown as an Asterisk* beside the letters of the award, e. g. LSM*, DFC* or multiple Asterisks where additional Bars are awarded, e. g. NZBM** The letters of an award, e. g. NZBM represent the FIRST award; the first Asterisk represents the SECOND and so on.
- CLASP – the term used to describe a metal bar identical in profile to a BAR. Bars normally have an embossed name or date of a particular campaign or operation. Clasps are also used Medal ribbons or medal ribbon bars may also have d – these are known as a Device. They may represent a number of years of qualifying service, or a perhaps a distinction, e. g. Mention in Dispatches (MiD), or Commendation for Valuable Service.
Ribbons – General
- RIBBON or RIBAND?– the piece of coloured fabric from which the medal is suspended. Manufactured until recently from silk, this has been largely replaced by man-made materials such as polyester and poly-cotton which are stronger, are colour-fast, and age well (negligible fading). Stck with RIBBON as ‘riband’ has alternate meanings that involve ship building and the parts of a palisade fence.
- Ribbon colours are described as ‘watered’ when each colour merges into the edges of its adjoining colours, along its entire length, e. g. 1914 and 1914/15 Stars, Victory Medal, Atlantic Star.
- The colours of medal ribbons can represent many things. The use of Navy Blue, Red and Sky Blue to represent the three military services is the most common. National colours of participant nations, or some other factor unique to an operation, the geography or climate. Some of the WW2 Stars were indicative of night bombing, searchlights, blackout, England’s green lands, the sea, firestorms etc
- Medal ribbon bar – a row of ribbons of specified length (approx 5 mm) fixed side by side (not overlapping) to a ribbon bar. The bar is worn in uniform pinned to the cloth. Ribbon bars are NOT worn when medals are worn. It is not normal to wear a ribbon bar when in civilian attire.
- A maximum of four ribbons per row (the NZDF has altered its rule to “three” ribbons to accommodate both arm swing and weapons drill)
- When medal ribbons alone are worn, the highest ranked award is worn closest to the centre of the chest; any single ribbon or incomplete rows of ribbons are placed centrally above the top row of ribbons.
- When a medal ribbon bar is worn, medals are not worn.
Medals awarded in the 19th and very early years of the 20th Centuries were far fewer than are awarded today, most being awarded to soldiers. Most of these medals were engraved using a variety of fonts, by jewellers or other artisans contracted for the purpose. The standard details included the soldier’s service number, rank, initials, last name and regiment however there was no particular standard of either font, layout or abbreviations used, particularly when it came to naming the soldiers unit. A number of British Army units have quite extensive unit titles that reflect their long history over a number of centuries. Realistically these had to be pared down to something that would easily fit on the edge of a medal.
First World War – By the time medals for First World War service were issued in the 1920s (1914 Star, 1914/15 Star, British War Medal 1914/20, Victory Medal, Mercantile Marine War Medal), a standardised sequence of naming, font and abbreviations were in place. Medals had the person’s details impressed into the Edge of the medal by a hand-operated press into which an operator would manually arrange the letters, numbers and punctuation for each medal. This accounts for the irregularities of spacing and alignment seen in on some medals. A recipient’s medal group might also show a variety of ranks on different medals. The rank impressed in the naming represents the rank that was held at the time the person qualified for the medal.
The naming of Mercantile Marine War Medals was different again. This consisted of only the recipient’s first and last names, or alternatively, first initial – last name, or first name – initial – last name. This could be a matter of choice, whilst no provision was made to include mercantile service rank or appointment titles, not even for the Master (Captain).
Second World War – Medals awarded for first and second world war service were distributed as blanks (un-named) from the UK (as for WW1) to participating allied nations of the Empire and Commonwealth. Once in receipt of the medals, each country had the responsibility for naming the medals before issue (if they so wished). New Zealand and the United Kingdom were the exception.
Un-named and Un-claimed
The governments of these countries chose NOT to have the service and campaign medals named. It was largely a financial decision influenced by the large number of medals involved and pressure from the ‘bean-counters’ to reign in post-war expenditure. After the first war, two medals (British War Medal and Victory Medal) were the most prolifically issued of the five available, around 6 million of each. After WW2 the number of medals a person could routinely qualify for was between four and five.
The decision to NOT name the medals caused a great deal of upset and angst among the returned personnel. Their perceived indifference of the government to both their voluntary service that had cost many thousands of lives, was considered by the Veterans as an insult from an ungrateful Prime Minister and government. What made the situation even worse was that the Veterans were required to apply for their medals, unlike those who returned from WW1 who had their medals not only named but automatically posted to them.
The government held firm to their contentious decision. The anger and disgust among the returned men was so deep-seated that many rejected their medals altogether and went to their grave having never claimed them. Until 2020, it was also not well known that there had been a significant cultural consideration which affected Maori servicemen that had been completely overlooked and caused a large number from the Hawkes Bay / East Coast iwi to not pursue their medal entitlements. Only now, 75 years later, has this situation finally been rectified!
The impact of the poor management of Second World War medals has and will never go away, not at least until the last Veteran is dead. The majority are now deceased however it is their descendant families who are starting to query the medal entitlements of their ancestor’s and medals. The power of the internet is fuelling both access and knowledge of their family’s military service. With this invariably comes the questions of medals and for some the revelation of an entitlement that has not been claimed!
Since 1946, most medals issued to New Zealand military personnel and citizens are named before presentation Medal naming for military medals continues to be done by modern impressing machinery at the point of issue – the Personnel Archives & Medals (PAM) office at Trentham. A standard block capital font is used for naming to ensure clarity, regularity and quality. The move now is towards Laser Etching although some official medals will remain un-named by design such as some of the limited circulation medals sponsored by the State, e. g. New Zealand 1990 Commemoration Medal and the New Zealand Suffrage Centennial Medal 1993. Most official foreign awards are issued un-named,as are all United Nations service medals.
Medals in waiting …
As a result of the foregoing plus the numerous individual circumstances that have resulted in medals not being claimed, such as the lack of known descendant at the time, there remains a large number of Second World War medals yet to be claimed. The Gallipoli Landings in April 1915 inspired the creation of the Anzac Commemorative Medallion, sometimes called the ‘Gallipoli’ Medallion. This was produced as a joint Australian and New Zealand government initiative to recognise the contribution and sacrifices Gallipoli Veterans had made. Its production coincided with the 50th Anniversary of the Anzac Landings in April 1915, and became available upon application, to NZ Veterans from August 1967. A number of medallions remain unclaimed since many of the soldiers who survived Gallipoli and returned to New Zealand, had unfortunately died prior to the medallion being produced. It is now up to descendants to do their research and submit a claim if they believe an entitlement exists.
Full-size and Miniature medals are mounted on a single brooch bar in one of two styles; the choice of style when no longer in uniform is up to the individual. Men and women in uniform conform to wearing medals on a single brooch bar. Civilian females awarded a state honour will normally have the medal presented on a ‘Ribbon Bow’ arrangement, with or without ‘tails.’
Medals are overlapped where necessary with the ribbon of each partially visible and running down behind the medal. The medals are wired to the mounting board at the Claw to avoid ‘clinking’ or excessive damage when worn. The only disadvantage of this mounting method is the Reverse is partially obscured so cannot be read or seen.
SWING or FREE Style
Medals are overlapped as necessary however swing freely from the brooch bar as issued. The medals are not restrained from ‘clinking’ together which can result in damage, or the loose medals being inadvertently obstructed or torn from clothing .
- Medals awarded up to and including WW2 were traditionally worn ‘swing/free’ style – ‘court’ style mounting was reserved for those required to attend (the Royal) Court.
- Traditionally R.N. and R.N.Z.N. personnel wore their medals mounted in the ‘swing/free’ style as a point of difference (still permitted) however R.N.Z.N. personnel while still serving conform to NZDF guidance, most commonly ‘court’ style in order to minimise damage or causing obstruction when performing weapons drills. Some ex-R.N.Z.N. personnel return their medals to ‘swing/free’ style mounting after release from military service.
- With the exception of those in the Defence Forces and other Crown uniformed services, the style of medal mounting style is the owner’s choice.
RIBBON BOW (ladies only)
Ribbon Bow awards, e. g. QSO, QSM, RRC 1st Class, NZ Suffrage Centennial Medal 1993 etc, come in both full size and miniature arrangements, with or without ‘TAILS’. A Ribbon Bow award is worn in the same position as standard medals are, on the left chest. On occasions when a women has both a Ribbon Bow award (or two) and a standard medal (or two), e. g. Service Medal of St John, Public Service Medal etc, the two types can be worn (mounted) together as shown below. Should an ex-service woman for instance have at lease four or more standard medals on a medal brooch bar, as well as a Ribbon Bow award, it is appropriate to wear the Ribbon Bow award above the medal brooch bar. A medal mounting specialist will determine the best arrangement according to the mix of awards you have.
- A professional medal mounting service will NOT mount unofficial medals with official awards. If they are prepared to do this because they want your money, you should reconsider and look for a reputable service.
- MRNZ can advise you of reputable medal mounting services nearest your area who can also re-ribbon, replace and repair medals.
Replacement and Replica medals
Should you ever need to replace a medal that is missing from your medal rack, obtaining a replacement is easy. Since the Ministry of Defence will only replace medals during the lifetime of WW1 servicemen, and only while a service person is still serving, that means a loss will necessitate you paying for a Replacement. These can be obtained from the same source as the NZDF – Singapore, or you might source what you need from several reputable medal makers in the UK. A missing medal from an original group should have an original or an official replacement to maintain the integrity of the group. If this proves to be to expensive, you may wish to opt for a Replica in its place. High quality replica medals are available mainly from overseas sources – I urge you to seek professional advice before buying anything.
Safeguarding your medals
SNAP – photograph your medals, both sides and the naming. These are particularly useful for insurance purposes or to give to police in the event of loss or theft. It also helps MRNZ and other like agencies to advertise, identify and prove ownership of your medals if found.
SECURE – when wearing the originals, ensure they are firmly attached to the medal bar, securely pinned to your clothing and that you keep a close eye on them at all times. Attaching a safety chain to the brooch bar is also a very good idea. Lock your medals away when you get home!
INSURE – old and valuable family medals should be insured separately. Recovering some monetary value if lost or stolen is better than FREE total and permanent loss.
Remember …. SNAP ~ SECURE ~ INSURE
‘Five-finger Discounters’ …
At any event where medals are worn, particularly large gatherings such as Anzac Day, Armistice Day, a commemorative church service, a veteran’s funeral and other military occasions, there are always persons interested in the medals that are being worn. Original (incl current) old and rare medals such as from the Crimean or European/Asian 19th Century wars, Boer War and First World War, together with those that are highly collectable and valuable, such as gallantry or meritorious service medals are of particular interest to the ‘five-finger discounter’ … the medal Thief!
While an opportunist thief will seize any unattended medals, a ‘professional’ or practised thief is in a league of their own. These people are characterised by showing inordinate interest in what medals you (or someone else) are wearing, and particularly if your group is uncommon, unique or bears a gallantry medal. Occasionally they will unwittingly identify themselves by direct questioning about your or someone else’s medals. They may try to engage you with small-talk whilst their eyes fixate on your medal rack, or furtively follow your movements about the room.
Play it safe: either keep your medals on, or remove them from public view as soon as you are able.
Children and medals
Watch your children wearing medals! Family medals given to unsupervised children (e. g. on your Boy Scout, Cub, Guide, Brownie or a child in ordinary civilian clothing) to wear on occasions such as an Anzac Day or Armistice Day parade are particularly susceptible to losing medals, or having them stolen from an opportunist or determined thief. I have seen children on various occasions wearing medal groups with a Distinguished Conduct Medal, a Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar, another with a Military Medal and British Empire Medal group, playing with other children whilst climbing trees and generally doing what kids do. Parents can be oblivious to where their kids are or what they might be doing while attending the ‘after-match’ function. It is all too easy for valuable or irreplaceable medals in these circumstances to be lost, or even stolen. If you value the medals you give your kids to wear, watch them and remove the medals as soon as the official part of the occasion is over or, …. give them Replica to wear.
Security of medals at home
The overt display of your family medals at home (e.g. a framed wall display) is a personal choice however do consider the impact of passive ‘advertising’ to non-family visitors, tradesmen and the like who may come into your home, and the potential for a future theft. Opportunist as well as ‘steal to order’ thieves can be found in every community. These people are generally are not your cat-burglar type who will break into your house and steal anything and everything of value, particularly your treasured family medals that have been left unsecured on the table in the kitchen. This type of thief knows the value of medals and will often know where medals can be accessed easily, such as those invitingly hung on a wall in the family home that can be clearly seen through a convenient window.
Medal loss and recovery
Original medals which have been lost, stolen or sold are rarely recovered. Original named medals that have been lost, recovered and reunited with descendants is a relatively rare event since serious collectors (or profiteering opportunists!) tend to snap these up as soon as they surface on the open market (internet). Some collectors are unconcerned where their medals have come from if they have a particular need in their collection.
If you locate, or are aware of the location of medals that were missing from your family, being in the possession of another person or organisation, you have little chance of recovery, unless: they were stolen and the theft was reported to the Police at the time the medals were taken. Should this situation arise, tell the Police immediately and they will assess what, if any, action can be taken.
If your medals were not NAMED, you have next to no chance of proving ownership, even in the unlikely even medals are found. If you follow the PREVENTION advice at the top of this section, you may just have a fighting chance of recovery.
Remember >> Your inattention or poor personal security of your family medals could result in a lifetime of anguish and regret – know where they are at all times and secure them when not in use.
Medals should always be treated with respect, be safeguarded and maintained in a clean but ORIGINAL condition – particularly old medals. Condition is reflective of a medal’s history (much like the patina of an antique) and should be maintained at all costs, provided you value their history.
NEVER clean medals with metal polish of any type! These will degrade the surface and remove any protective coating applied.
To Start: Use a warm water dampened cloth to clean ~ absorbent paper towel if required ~ buff with soft, dry cloth
If your medals need more attention than the above cleaning can resolve, consider first what the medal is made of.
Silver is a soft metal that will tarnish to black if not maintained. Very light polishing with a silver polish impregnated cloth is recommended. If it requires anything stringer to remove spots etc, a silver dip solution will not do any appreciable damage as long as the instructions are followed. Sonic cleaning is another option best left to a jeweller.
Silver/Nickle Plate & Cupro-nickle
Silver coloured medals manufactured between the 1930s and mid-1960s can be a mix of the above which generally will remain shiny for much longer than pure silver. Use only a proprietary impregnated polishing cloth designed on these metals. There are ways to treat the surfaces to prolong the new appearance but this is best left to a professionals to do
More modern silver coloured medals from the 1970s onward have surfaces of high quality rhodium plate. The rhodium plate gives the medal its ‘mirror’ bright finish which requires very little maintenance. Remove any fouling with a warm, damp cloth and buff dry with a soft cloth. Be aware the ‘mirror’ finish surface on these is very susceptible to scratching.
Bronze medals such as the WW1 1914 “Mons” Star, 1914/15 Star, the WW2 campaign Stars, UN medals and NZ General Service medals since 1999, are not designed to be polished! These should be left to age naturally which will give them their characteristic dark coloured patina. To clean, remove any surface dirt/stains with warm water and a buff dry.
The WW1 Victory Medal is also made of Bronze coated with a ‘gold wash’ to give it its characteristic shiny gold colour. The ‘gold wash’ is VERY THIN and easily removed by using metal polish, or even rubbing too vigorously with an silver polish impregnated cloth. To clean these medals, again, use only warm water to remove dirt and rain spots. Pat dry with paper kitchen towel and buff with a soft, dry cloth. Failure to do this can quickly lead to pitting or corrosion of the surface protection, or if left unattended for some weeks, verdigris (green corrosion) spots may develop, particularly on bronze medals. Stubborn stains may need careful use of a polish impregnated cloth – proceed with care!
If unsure what to do , seek the advice of a professional as any damage you might do, may be irreversible.
Keep medal ribbons in good repair and store them in a purpose built container. There are many commercial examples that can be bought on-line or you could make one yourself. Using tins is not a good idea since condensation can form on the inside of the metal as heat and cold conditions change around it. Plastic boxes with snap shut seals are fine for short term storage or transportation however, remember they are not fire proof.
Always dry medals off if they have been dampened by rain and give them a light buff with a soft, dry cloth before replacing in a storage box. Keep them wrapped in tissue or a paper kitchen towel and store in a warm, dry place (the hot water cylinder cupboard or linen press is ideal), under lock and key is even better.
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