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Military medals

by Kerryn Pollock

New Zealand soldier Charles Upham is one of only three people to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice, for his courageous actions during the Second World War. In 2007 Willie Apiata became the first person to be awarded the Victoria Cross for New Zealand, for actions in Afghanistan. The Victoria Cross is the best-known of a raft of military medals awarded to servicemen and women.

Military medals overview

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.


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.


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.

Campaign and service medals

New Zealand wars

The New Zealand Medal was instituted in 1869 to recognise the service of British troops in New Zealand in 1845–47 and 1860–66. In 1871 eligibility was extended to New Zealand volunteers who served in the 1860s. Though the New Zealand Medal was a British award, it is seen as the first New Zealand campaign medal.

South African War

New Zealand troops who served during the South African War of 1899–1902 received the Queen’s South Africa Medal. A small number also received the King’s South Africa Medal, which was issued after Queen Victoria died in 1901 and Edward VII ascended to the throne.

Of more than 6,000 members of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles and 31 New Zealand nurses who served in South Africa, most received the Queen’s South Africa Medal. 171 soldiers and six nurses received the King’s South Africa Medal.

The medal that never was

In 1917 Lieutenant General William Birdwood, the commander of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), suggested that there should be a special award for ANZAC troops who served at Gallipoli, Turkey, during the First World War. King George V approved the suggestion. The Gallipoli Star was designed, the conditions of award were finalised and the ribbon was sent to New Zealand – and then the medal was cancelled. Members of Parliament and the British media had been critical of an award being made to an exclusive group of people and the controversy resulted in the Gallipoli Star’s demise.

First World War

Five British medals were issued to recognise service during the First World War: the 1914 Star, the 1914–1915 Star, the British War Medal, the Mercantile Marine War Medal and the Victory Medal.

Only four New Zealand military personnel – two nurses and two officers attached to the British forces – were awarded the 1914 Star. This was because the New Zealand Expeditionary Force did not fight in France and Belgium between August and November 1914, which was the requirement for this medal.

Second World War

Ten British medals were issued to recognise service during the Second World War: the 1939–1945 Star, the Atlantic Star, the Air Crew Europe Star, the Africa Star, the Pacific Star, the Burma Star, the Italy Star, the France and Germany Star, the Defence Medal and the War Medal 1939–1945.

Applications required

After the First World War medals were posted to servicemen and women. The situation was rather different after the Second World War. The navy, army and air departments decided that because of the large number of medals, they would only be issued if applied for in writing. Some former servicemen and women refused to do this, believing that it was the departments’ responsibility to send the medals out, so never received the medals to which they were entitled. Others did not apply because they wanted to forget their war experiences. The New Zealand Defence Force still had a large stock of some Second World War medals in the 2000s because demand after the war was less than anticipated.

The New Zealand War Service Medal was also instituted to recognise those who served in the New Zealand armed forces between 1939 and 1945. Many members of the Home Guard qualified for this medal.

Other British medals

British medals were awarded to New Zealanders who served in Malaya (1948–60), Korea (1950–53), Borneo (1962–66) and Rhodesia (1979–80).

New Zealand medals

The first war service medal issued by New Zealand for New Zealanders was the New Zealand War Service Medal. The first New Zealand campaign medal was the Vietnam Medal, which was instituted in 1968.

No more New Zealand campaign medals were instituted until the 1990s. The New Zealand General Service Medal 1992 was instituted that year in two forms, ‘warlike’ and ‘non-warlike’. These covered post-Second World War operations for which no medals had been issued by Britain or the United Nations. In 1995 the New Zealand Service Medal 1946–1949 was instituted. This covered service in Japan between 1946 (later 3 September 1945) and 1949.

The East Timor Medal was instituted in 2001 to recognise service in East Timor between 1999 and 2006.

New Zealand General Service Medals 2002, covering service since 2000 in Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea, the Solomon Islands and East Timor, were instituted between 2002 and 2008.

In 2002 the New Zealand Operational Service Medal was introduced to provide recognition to those who had served in a war or campaign since the end of the Second World War. By 2012 more than 20,000 had been issued.

The New Zealand Defence Service Medal (instituted in 2011) recognises military service – regular, territorial or reserve, compulsory military training and national service – since the end of the Second World War, in New Zealand and overseas. It is estimated that over 160,000 people are eligible for this medal.

The New Zealand Special Service Medal was instituted in 2002. Medals issued under this warrant cover service during nuclear testing operations (1956–73), the 1979 Mt Erebus air crash in Antarctica and the 2004 Asian tsunami.

In 2007 a New Zealand royal honour, the New Zealand Distinguished Service Decoration, was instituted solely for award to military personnel of the New Zealand Defence Force. It recognises distinguished military service, including command, leadership and service in an operational environment, or in support of operations.

Long-service and good-conduct medals

There are a large number of military medals for long service and good conduct, most of which are not current. In 2011 there were 12 current medals of this type.

Other medals

New Zealand military personnel and police are eligible for United Nations and NATO service medals. New Zealanders have also received foreign decorations and medals, such as the French Croix de Guerre for service in France and Belgium during the First and Second world wars. The New Zealand Memorial Cross is awarded to the next-of-kin of military personnel who died in wars and campaigns from 3 September 1945 onwards.

Gallantry and bravery awards

In 1999 eight New Zealand gallantry and bravery awards replaced more than 20 British awards for which New Zealanders had hitherto been eligible.

In New Zealand, gallantry is defined as enduring great danger during warlike or non-warlike operational service, including peacekeeping, in an admirable and commendable manner. Bravery is defined as saving or attempting to save the life of another person, while putting one’s own life at risk.

There are four gallantry awards for actions by military personnel in a warlike or non-warlike (such as peace-keeping) operational setting. The four bravery awards are chiefly civilian awards, but can be awarded to military personnel when a gallantry award is not suitable. Both categories can be awarded posthumously.

Between 1999 and 2011, 14 gallantry and 26 bravery medals were awarded – 29 to military personnel, nine to civilians and two to members of the New Zealand Police. All the gallantry award recipients have been men (though some names were not made public for security reasons). Three women have received bravery awards.

Victoria Cross for New Zealand

The Victoria Cross for New Zealand, the highest gallantry award available to military or civilian personnel, is awarded for ‘most conspicuous gallantry, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour, self sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy or of belligerents'.1 It replaced the British Victoria Cross in 1999.

Unusual award

During the South African War of 1899–1902, New Zealander Henry Coutts rescued a wounded British sergeant and was exposed to heavy enemy fire. He was presented with one of eight woollen scarves crocheted by Queen Victoria, embroidered with her initials. Some commentators have argued that these scarves are the equivalent of the British Victoria Cross and at least one recipient tried unsuccessfully to have it recognised as such. Coutts’s scarf is held by the National Army Museum.

21 members of the New Zealand armed forces were awarded the British Victoria Cross, between 1864 and 1946. The most famous of these is Charles Upham, who received the award for his actions in Crete in 1941 and Egypt in 1942. He is one of only three people in the world to have received this award twice. In 2007 Corporal Willie Apiata was the first person awarded the Victoria Cross for New Zealand, for courageous action in Afghanistan. In 2012 he remained the only recipient.

The New Zealand Cross (instituted in 1869) was a colonial equivalent of the British Victoria Cross, and could only be awarded to British military personnel or New Zealanders under the command of a British officer at the time. It was awarded to 23 people between 1869 and 1910. This historic gallantry medal is not to be confused with the current New Zealand Cross (the highest bravery award), which was instituted in 1999, replacing the George Cross.

Collectable cross

In September 2011 a rare 19th-century New Zealand Cross was sold at auction in England, fetching $228,000. It was awarded to Thomas Adamson in 1876 ‘for good and gallant services as a scout and guide’2 in Taranaki and the Urewera between 1868 and 1869. In 2011, of the 23 New Zealand Crosses awarded, 14 were held in museums and other institutions throughout the world, two remained with the recipients’ descendants, three (including Adamson’s) were in private collections and a further three were known to have been lost, destroyed and buried. The whereabouts of the cross awarded to Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui (Major Kemp) in 1874 is unknown.

Other gallantry medals

The New Zealand Gallantry Star is the second-level gallantry award. It is awarded for ‘acts of outstanding gallantry in situations of danger.’3 This medal replaced the British Distinguished Service Order, Distinguished Conduct Medal and the two Conspicuous Gallantry Medals. By 2012 two people had received the Gallantry Star.

The New Zealand Gallantry Decoration is the third-level gallantry award. It is awarded for ‘acts of exceptional gallantry in situations of danger’.4 This medal replaced the British Distinguished Service Cross, Military Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Force Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Military Medal, Distinguished Flying Medal and Air Force Medal. By 2012 eight people had received the Gallantry Decoration.

The New Zealand Gallantry Medal is the fourth-level gallantry award. It is awarded for acts of gallantry. This medal replaced the British Mention in Dispatches, the Commendation for Brave Conduct and the Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air. By 2012 three people had received the Gallantry Medal.

Bravery medals

Bravery medals are primarily intended for civilians who place themselves at risk while saving or attempting to save the lives of others, but military personnel can also receive these medals when a gallantry award is not appropriate – if, for instance, the action involved saving life in a non-combat situation.

The premier bravery award is the New Zealand Cross. This is followed by the New Zealand Bravery Star, the New Zealand Bravery Decoration and the New Zealand Bravery Medal.

  1. ‘New Zealand gallantry and bravery awards – the Victoria Cross for New Zealand.’ New Zealand Defence Force, (last accessed 6 January 2012). Back
  2. New Zealand Gazette, 11 May 1876, p. 336. Back
  3. ‘New Zealand gallantry and bravery medals – the New Zealand Gallantry Star.’ New Zealand Defence Force, (last accessed 6 January 2012). Back
  4. ‘New Zealand gallantry and bravery medals – the New Zealand Gallantry Decoration.’ New Zealand Defence Force, (last accessed 6 January 2012). Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Kerryn Pollock, 'Military medals', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2021)

He kōrero nā Kerryn Pollock, i tāngia i te 20 Jun 2012