Story: Military medals

Page 1. Military medals overview

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Medals are awarded to members of the armed forces in recognition of service, participation in military campaigns, and acts of gallantry and bravery.

Overstepping the mark

The governor of New Zealand, George Bowen, incurred the wrath of his superiors in London when he instituted the New Zealand Cross in 1869. Only the Queen could institute new awards, so Bowen had seriously transgressed the limits of his authority. Despite this, the Queen approved the new medal, mainly because five had already been awarded.

British heritage

Because of New Zealand’s close ties with Britain and its inheritance of the British honours system, New Zealand military personnel were eligible for British military medals from the 19th century until 1999, when the British gallantry and bravery awards were replaced by New Zealand awards.

All medals are instituted by a Royal Warrant, which describes the purposes of the medal, and managed under regulations which describe eligibility criteria.

New Zealand awards

In 1975 the first New Zealand state honours, the Queen’s Service Order and its associated Queen’s Service Medal, were instituted. The Order of New Zealand followed in 1987. These were the first steps towards an indigenous honours system. In 1995 a committee reviewed the honours system and recommended that the remaining British honours be replaced by New Zealand ones. The British gallantry and bravery medals were replaced in 1999.

Eligibility

Service in the New Zealand armed forces is the first and most obvious award requirement. Some medals are awarded for service in particular geographical locations and military campaigns. Some medals are issued for a particular service in the armed forces (navy, army or air force), and some are issued for length of service. Gallantry and bravery medals are awarded to recognise an individual’s actions rather than simply for service.

Appearance

Military medals are typically round, or cross- or star-shaped. They are made of silver, silver alloys and bronze. The Victoria Cross for New Zealand (the highest gallantry award) is cast in gunmetal. Initially this was from Russian guns captured during the Crimean War (1853–56) and kept at the Royal Arsenal in the United Kingdom.

Each medal has a unique ribbon. Clasps (thin metal bars) are issued for some medals and are attached to the ribbon. These signify that the recipient took part in a certain action, fought in a particular theatre of war or has received an award more than once.

Wearing medals

The wearing of military medals is subject to certain protocols. Medals are worn next to the left lapel, and must be worn in the correct order of precedence as laid out in the official New Zealand Order of Wear – with the highest-precedence medal nearest the lapel. Since the 1990s it has been acceptable for family members to wear their deceased relatives’ medals on Anzac Day (25 April) or Remembrance Day (11 November) and at events where the relative or their unit is being honoured. Relatives’ medals are worn next to the right lapel.

The wearing of medals on other days or by people unrelated to recipients is a breach of protocol. It is illegal for someone to represent themselves as entitled to wear a particular medal if this is not in fact the case.

Keeping medals together

Military personnel could receive a number of medals during their service. For example, a typical, basic Second World War group was made up of at least three medals – probably more. The New Zealand Defence Force recommends that medal sets be kept together after the recipient’s death, rather than being distributed among family members. Splitting up the group is said to destroy its value and mana.

Collecting medals

Between 1918 and 1974, military medals could not be traded without permission from the Department of Defence. Collectors had to be registered with the department and could only obtain medals for their own collections. The medals section of the army sold medals to collectors from stock supplies. After 1974 medals could be freely traded and the army no longer supplied collectors.

Medal repositories

Major medal repositories in New Zealand are the Navy Museum in Auckland, the National Army Museum in Waiōuru, the Air Force Museum in Christchurch and some non-military institutions such as the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Medals in these museums were mainly donated by military personnel or their families.

In December 2007, 96 military medals, including nine Victoria Crosses, were stolen from the National Army Museum. They were recovered in February 2008 after a $200,000 deal was brokered with the thieves – both of whom were later convicted and imprisoned. In 2011 a former employee received a three-year prison sentence for stealing 750 medals from the museum between 1995 and 2002.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Military medals - Military medals overview', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/military-medals/page-1 (accessed 18 November 2019)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 20 Jun 2012