This article is organised as follows:


1.0     Introduction

“A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon.”
Attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte

This article provides an overview of the orders, decorations, medals, and commendations available to Service personnel of the British armed forces.

As Winston Churchill put it on 22 March 1944:

“The object of giving medals, stars and ribbons is to give pride and pleasure to those who have deserved them. At the same time a distinction is something which everybody does not possess. If all have it, it is of less value. There must, therefore, be heart-burnings and disappointments on the borderline. A medal glitters, but it also casts a shadow. The task of drawing up regulations for such awards is one which does not admit of a perfect solution. It is not possible to satisfy everybody without running the risk of satisfying nobody. All that is possible is to give the greatest satisfaction to the greatest number and to hurt the feelings of the fewest.”

As well as being eligible for the military divisions of civilian honours, members of the British armed forces are also eligible for decorations, medals and commendations for gallantry and distinguished service. Nominations for these awards are made by the military chain of command to the Ministry of Defence, with the Defence Secretary then forwarding nominations to The Sovereign. Lists of recipients of honours are published periodically in the official Crown newspaper, the London Gazette.

This article in divided into nine parts for easier reading. Part One is this introduction. Part Two looks at the awards process and the organisations involved. Parts Three, Four, Five, and Six outline the Level One to Four awards respectively. Part Seven highlights other UK medals, such as World War I, World War II, post-WW2, and The Elizabeth Cross. Part Eight details the order of wear and precedence of the orders, decorations, and medals. Part Nine provides some useful publications, links to websites and references.

1.1     Aim

The aim of this article is to provide a brief overview of the United Kingdom’s orders, decorations, medals, and commendations which can be awarded to members of the armed services.

1.2     History of Medals

The Jewish historian Josephus records in the 4th century BC that Jonathan led the Hebrews to aid Alexander the Great. Alexander “…sent to Jonathan … honorary awards, as a golden button, which it is custom to give the king’s kinsmen.” (Maton, 1995, p.11). This is the first documented mention in history of medallic recognition.

Award is a broad term that can indicate an order, a decoration, or an actual medal. An order is perhaps the most elaborate form of award, often recognising distinguished service to a nation or to humanity. An order differs from other forms of medal implying membership of an organisation because orders were originally fraternities of knighthood. Most orders are divided into several classes with insignia normally more elaborate for higher classes in the order and worn differently depending on class. A decoration is a less elaborate form of medal, typically shaped like a cross or star, and usually conferred for a noteworthy individual action. It is commonly worn with a ribbon on the left breast, though not in all cases. A medal is usually the most junior of awards, normally shaped like a circle and resembling a coin. Medals are generally awarded for participation or service in a particular organisation, but may also be for a one-off action of some kind. In the latter case, the boundary between a medal and decoration is blurred. A medal is usually worn suspended from a ribbon on the left breast.

Historical and archaeological records confirm the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians and Hittites used various forms of physical and tangible rewards to recognise bravery and military achievement. While these often took the form of practical gifts such as horses, land or accoutrements of war, they also included more decorative items such as jewellery or special items of clothing to be worn on ceremonial occasions. Generally, these awards were the personal gift of the ruler or senior commander.

The Romans are acknowledged as the originators of a recognisable military awards system. Although their system consisted of crowns and ornaments rather than medals, the award methodology would have been recognisable to military personnel today. The highest award to which a Roman soldier of any rank could aspire was the Civic Crown or Corona Civica, an award made to the first Roman soldier over the wall of an enemy fortification; perhaps the Victoria Cross of its day (the UK’s highest award for bravery). Below this was a range of other crowns and lower level decorations including phalerae or ornamental discs (designed for wearing over parade armour), torques and wrist bands. These awards were established by the State rather than a ruler or commander, although commanders had the authority to award various levels at their discretion in accordance with the rules. The awards were held in high esteem and a number of Roman grave markers have been discovered that include reference to awards, in a similar fashion to the concept of post-nominal letters.

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century, the structure brought to the art and science of war by the Romans disappeared. It was not until nearly 900 years later, in the 14th Century, that awards for military achievement or merit were established by the rulers of various states. Most of these secular orders of chivalry and merit were based on earlier models of the monastic orders of knighthood of the Roman Catholic Church and are important to the development of military honours and awards. Surviving examples of these monastic orders include:

  • The Sovereign Military Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem;
  • The Order of the Holy Sepulcher (today a purely secular Papal order of chivalry);
  • The Military Order of Aviz (today a Portuguese order of merit); and
  • The Teutonic Order (today an Austrian based monastic charitable order).

When establishing national orders, European rulers often based designs on the older monastic orders, copying such notions as a Grandmaster and the division of orders into various degrees, based on the levels of achievement of members. The new national orders also borrowed heavily from the monastic orders in the areas of regalia and insignia. Some of the more famous orders established during this period (and still existing today in their respective countries) were:

  • The Order of the Garter established in 1348 in England; and
  • The Order of the Seraphim established in 1748 in Sweden.

A feature of the national orders was their restriction to the elite in society. Rulers reserved the authority to bestow such awards and generally recognised fellow heads of state, senior members of court, senior national and foreign allied military commanders. Napoleon Bonaparte is credited with extending national recognition through all levels of the military. Just as he effectively ‘nationalised’ wars and armies, he also expanded the scope of awards. Napoleon established the Legion of Honour in 1802, a national order of merit divided into five degrees and open to all citizens of the Republic. During his many campaigns Napoleon bestowed the Legion of Honour on all ranks of his army and navy and the award achieved such status that the restored monarchy in 1816, fearing a backlash from the tens of thousands of recipients, retained the award (The Bourbon monarchy overhauled the system, altered the design to eradicate its Napoleonic connections and renamed several of the grades, but the essence and name of the award remained.). The Legion of Honour has survived all succeeding French political upheavals and remains the premier order of the French Republic. However, Napoleon’s extension of the award of medals to all levels of the military applied only to decorations for bravery and merit.

British Developments

The practice of campaign or long service medals started in Britain around the time of the English Civil War (1642 to 1651). The first of these was the Dunbar Medal, issued to Oliver Cromwell’s troops in recognition of their victory over the Scots at Dunbar in 1650. The medal was issued to all ranks and suspended from the neck by a ribbon.

A range of private or semi-private medals were issued between the 1600s and early 1700s. The practice of privately funded and authorised medals was extended by the East India Company, a trading organisation based in India that grew so large and powerful, it maintained a separate navy and army. The Company established a tradition of issuing medals to its own ‘Company troops’ (both native Indian and European), as well as to ‘King’s’ or ‘Queen’s’ troops who were allowed to wear the medals. They were generally medals issued to all ranks to recognise specific actions.

Mention in Despatches

The Mention in Despatches (MiD) dates from the 17th Century and was originally a method of bringing the outstanding officers to the attention of higher command. The first record of ‘other ranks’ was in 1843 in despatches from the Second Scind War by Sir Charles Napier and varied from a simple list of names to a detailed description of the individual services performed. In 1902 as a result of a recommendation of the Inter-Departmental Rewards Committee it was decided that publication in the London Gazette was essential to constitute a ‘mention’. During World War I the MiD was awarded for actions ranging from gallantry to exemplary performance of duty and approximately 2.3% of all troops involved were mentioned. In 1919, the King decreed a certificate be given to all persons named in despatches, and in 1920 a multi-leaved oak leaf was authorised to be worn on the ribbon of the Victory Medal (this signified one or more MiD). In August 1943 the original emblem was replaced by a single-leaved oak leaf with individual directions made for each conflict or campaign as to which ribbon the emblem was attached. The MiD has never been part of the formal order of precedence or wear. Prior to a change of British government policy in 1993 regarding posthumous awards of decorations, the MiD was the only award, other than the VC, that could be made posthumously.

Campaign and Service Medals

The first British campaign medal issued to all ranks was the Waterloo Medal instituted in 1815, and is important for two reasons:

  • It was the first issued by the government to every soldier who served on the designated battlefield; and
  • It established the official British practice of individually naming medals.

Nevertheless, the unintended consequence of the Waterloo Medal was the alienation of thousands of Napoleonic War veterans who had served in a number of conflicts, but were not on the field of battle at Waterloo.

In 1847, after much lobbying and pressure from all levels of society, the British government responded with the creation of the Naval General Service Medal (NGSM) and the Military General Service Medal (MGSM). These medals established the practice of a single medal to cover a period of time, with individual clasps to recognise separate campaigns or engagements. Although the practice of colonial chartered companies issuing medals continued spasmodically in South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Borneo, Kenya, and Uganda until the end of the 19th Century, the British government takeover of the East India Company in the 1850s effectively saw all medals from that time authorised and issued by The Sovereign.

This new system generally awarded campaign medals except in cases where ‘minor operations occurred for which no separate medal was intended’. These broad criteria allowed significant flexibility in the decision to create a separate campaign medal or issue a clasp to the GSM. With this flexibility came examples of apparent inconsistency where relatively small actions involved a campaign medal but other more high-profile engagements were recognised through a clasp to a GSM only.

In some cases, medals that appear to be ‘hybrids’ were awarded, with British units being awarded the Indian General Service Medal, limited to various minor military campaigns in India. Likewise, the Africa General Service Medal was awarded for operations on the continent of Africa and last awarded in the 1950s (To recognise service by British troops in Kenya during the Mau Mau Uprising).

Individual Decorations and Medals

A number of medals to recognise bravery, merit or achievement were established in the UK as far back as Elizabethan times. The first ones of significance were the Naval Reward Medal and the Danger Averted Medal made in gold or silver following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

The Crimean War (1854 to 1856) was significant in a numbers of ways:

  • First, the conflict ended 40 years of peace and, in a training, doctrine, equipment and cultural sense, the UK was ill-prepared.
  • Second, it is seen by some as the first ‘modern’ conflict making tactical use of railways and the telegraph, trenches and blind artillery fire.
  • Third, war correspondents were on hand for the first time to witness actions and report quickly to the British public.

William Russell, a reporter working for The Times, wrote a number of articles including reports of many acts of bravery and valour by Service personnel, and there was a growing feeling among the public and in the Royal Court of the need to recognise incidents of gallantry unconnected with a man’s lengthy or meritorious service.

The first decoration for gallantry, the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), was established in 1854. The medal was restricted to non-commissioned officers (NCO’s) and soldiers. The following year, the naval equivalent, the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (CGM), was established. As with the DCM, the CGM was reserved for other ranks.

In 1856, the DCM and CGM were complimented by the Victoria Cross (VC). Queen Victoria had instructed the War Office to create a new medal that would not recognise birth or class. The medal was meant to be a simple decoration that would be highly prized by those in the military services. The original warrant stated that the VC would only be awarded to soldiers who served in the presence of the enemy and performed some act of valour or devotion. The Regulations were later changed to widen eligibility to all ranks.

In 1883, at the instigation of Queen Victoria, the Royal Red Cross (RRC) was established as a decoration to recognise nursing services, regardless of rank. The RRC was unique until 1976 in that the award was restricted to females. In 1886, the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) was established recognising individual instances of meritorious or distinguished service in war for officers.

The VC, DSO, DCM and CGM were the major decorations the British Empire carried into the 20th Century. Many of the awards in the Imperial system (as it came to be known) were both service and rank specific. For example:

  • The Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) and GCM were specifically for award to British and Commonwealth naval personnel.
  • The Military Cross (MC), DCM and Military Medal (MM) were restricted to Army and the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), Air Force Cross (AFC), CGM (Flying), Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM) and Air Flying Medal (AFM) were specifically for award to members involved in flying duties.
  • The DSC, MC, DFC and AFC were for award to officers and warrant officers, with the DCM, CGM, DSM, MM, DFM and AFM for those equivalent ranks of Sergeant and below.

A decoration of note is the Meritorious Service Medal (MSM) 1916-1928. The original MSM was established as a long and meritorious service award for sergeants of the British Army in 1845. Subject to rather lengthy regulations, the MSM has been described as an ‘extra-long service medal’, eventually developing into a medal awarded to warrant officers, NCO’s and other ranks who were already in possession of a long service and good conduct medal, and met additional time requirements. However, in 1916 under pressure of World War I, the MSM was extended to all services and made available for immediate award to recognise bravery not in action or meritorious service to the war effort. Unlike the long service version, immediate awards of the medal entitled the recipient to use the post-nominal letters MSM. This practice ceased in 1922 with the introduction of the British Empire Medal.

World War I

World War I (WWI) was the first global military conflict where the world experienced warfare on a truly industrial scale, and this prompted major change in the service recognition culture in the British Empire. Decisions relating to medallic recognition were not finalised until after the War concluded. Countries under the influence of the British Empire, future Commonwealth countries – such as Australian, New Zealand, Canada, and India – used the Imperial system.

Post World War I

In between the Wars, the armed forces utilised GSM’s to mark military actions. These medals extended from 1918 to the early 1960s, with clasps attached when approved.

World War II

Following 20 years of relative peace the world was again consumed by conflict. World War II (WWII) involved the mobilisation of over 100 million military personnel and was conducted on a global scale, making it the most widespread war in history. The war placed most participating countries in a state of ‘total war’, erasing the distinction between civil and military resources, and activating economic, industrial, human and scientific capabilities for the purposes of the war effort.

Another significant shift in medallic recognition within the British Empire was witnessed as a consequence of WWII. This resulted in the issue of a number of campaign stars and service medals. However, the rules on the awarding and wearing of stars were quite restrictive, with regulations stating that a maximum of five stars only could be earned by an individual, with any other entitlement to stars being denoted by clasps (signified by a gilt or silver rosette when the ribbon only was worn).


In 1939 Britain introduced and the Commonwealth adopted a form of recognition known as the King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct. The commendation was designed to recognise bravery or good service in connection with the war effort that did not merit award of a medal. For service awards it was decreed the emblem of the Commendation would be worn under the same rules as the MiD. The name of the award was changed after the death of King George VI to the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct. The Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air was established in 1942 to recognise meritorious service in the air or gallantry not of the standard required for award of the AFC or AFM. As with the Commendation for Brave Conduct, the Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air (renamed the Queen’s Commendation in 1952) was denoted by a special badge for civilian recipients, however, members of the armed forces wore the emblem of the MiD according to the regulations for that award.

Post World War II

Following WWII the NGSM 1915 and GSM 1918 continued to be issued up until 1962. Other campaign medals issued during this period include:

  • Korea Medal: The Korea Medal was established by Britain in 1951 for issue to all British and Commonwealth forces who took part in the Korean War between 25 June 1950 and 27 July 1953. The main qualifying criteria were:
    • One day’s operational service on land in Korea;
    • One operational sortie over Korea or Korean waters; or
    • Twenty-eight days afloat in designated waters off Korea.
  • United Nations Medal Korea: The United Nations (UN) Medal Korea was established by the UN in 1951 as a medal to recognise service by the various national contingents to Korea. The UN Medal Korea was issued with the inscription on the reverse rendered in twelve separate languages to accommodate the various contributing nations. The qualifying period for the UN Medal Korea was 27 June 1950 to 27 July 1954, the medal qualifying period being extended for one year after the signing of the Armistice in 1953. Basic qualifying criterion for the medal was one day’s service in Korea or designated waters.
  • General Service Medal 1962: The GSM 1962 was established in 1964 as the replacement for the NGSM 1915 and GSM 1918. As with these previous medals, the GSM 1962 was instituted as a medal to recognise service in minor campaigns or operations. The GSM ceased to be issued in Britain with the ending of the internal security operation in Northern Ireland in July 2007.

1.3     An Overview of the UK Honours System

  • The UK honours system relies on the concept that ‘The Sovereign is the fount of all honour.’
  • Appointments to the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Thistle, the Order of Merit, and the Royal Victorian Order remain the Sovereign’s prerogative.
  • Honours and awards are, in general, conferred or awarded on the advice of State Ministers, which is normally tendered through the signing of a submission to the Sovereign.
  • The Secretary of State for Defence delegates the selection of recipients and administration of military awards.
  • Three principles to consider:
    • Five Year Rule (Section 2.8): No new medals will be instituted more than five years after the cessation of a particular campaign or operation.
    • Double Medalling (Section 2.9): Only one form of medallic recognition is acceptable for a single period of meritorious and/or campaign service.
    • Risk and Rigour (Section 2.10): This requires that there should be a significant degree of risk to life and limb and deployed personnel will be exposed to arduous conditions in excess of what might normally be expected.
  • The Inter-Departmental Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals (‘The HD Committee’) provides the mechanism for discussion of all matters relating to UK honours and awards.
  • The HD Committee, which has been in existence since before World War II, is the only channel through which proposals for additions to, or changes in, the system, including proposals affecting specifically Armed Forces awards, may be submitted to The Sovereign.
  • The George Cross (Military) Committee, a sub-committee of the HD Committee, is responsible for maintaining the standards of the civilian gallantry awards for which Service personnel are recommended.
    • These awards include the George Cross, George Medal, Queen’s Gallantry Medal, Queen’s Commendation for Bravery, and Queen’s Commendation for Bravery in the Air.
    • Recommendations for the George Cross, George Medal, and the Queen’s Gallantry Medal are scrutinised by the George Cross (Military) Committee.
    • Recommendations for the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery and Queen’s Commendation for Bravery in the Air are scrutinised by the MOD, which has delegated authority from the George Cross (Military) Committee, and are submitted through the Secretary of State for Defence to The Sovereign.
  • The George Cross (Civilian) Committee scrutinises recommendations for the full range of gallantry awards to civilians.
  • The UK awards comprise:
    • Orders: Individuals may be appointed to an Order, for example, Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) or Companion of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
    • Decorations: Individuals may be awarded a decoration, for example, Conspicuous Gallantry Cross (CGC) or Distinguished Service Cross (DSC).
    • Medals: Individuals may be awarded a Medal, for example:
      • George Medal (GM), Queen’s Volunteer Reserves Medal (QVRM), Operational Service, and War medals.
      • Jubilee and Coronation medals.
      • Medals for Efficiency and Long Service, for example, Long Service and Good Conduct Medal and Meritorious Service Medal.
    • Commendations: Individuals may be awarded a commendation.
  • Awards may only be worn by properly entitled personnel, which is usually derived by an announcement in the London Gazette or through an entry on a Service person’s record of service which can be verified at the MOD Medal Office.

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