The Art of Military Medals
The concept of awarding medals for military service can be traced back to the 17th century when successful generals were given unique objects of precious metals. It was not until 1815 when beautifully designed, die-struck medals were awarded to Napoleonic War veterans that distribution became wholesale. The defeat of the “Great Ogre,” Napoleon Bonaparte, prompted a flood of honours and awards within and between the victorious allies. Even the oft-despised common soldiers, Wellington’s “scum of the earth,” benefited from this windfall. In a move that has been interpreted by some as a self-aggrandising promotional coup, the Duke of Wellington encouraged the de facto ruler, the Prince Regent, to award a medal to all troops under British command who fought at the Battle of Waterloo. The Waterloo Medal set the criteria for British and Canadian war medals for the next two centuries and is worthy of further study.
The Waterloo Medal was awarded by the ruling sovereign
and presented to every British participant in the battle. It was
circular, suspended by a ribbon and was intended to be worn
as a badge of honour, marking the wearer as one of the
victors. On the obverse of the medal, the side intended to
be shown, it bore the effigy of the Prince Regent, wearing a
crown of laurel leaves. In case there was any doubt, the royal
head was surrounded by the legend GEORGE P. REGENT.
The reverse of the medal reinforced the message of triumph
and featured the winged figure of Victory perched on a tablet
inscribed simply WATERLOO, with the date of the battle in the
exergue, the space at the bottom. The winged female figure
clutches a palm branch in her right hand and in the other, an
olive branch. Lest anyone forget the true architect of victory,
the single word WELLINGTON is written above her head.
The ribbon from which the medal was suspended further
reflected the royal nature of the award and was coloured
crimson and royal blue.
As the medals were a personal gift from the Prince Regent,
the recipient’s rank, name and regiment were impressed into
the edge of the disc in Roman capitals. Yet the medal was
more than a personalized souvenir, it was a beautiful example
of the medalist’s art, designed by Thomas Wyon, the Chief
Engraver of the King’s Seals, and a member of a talented,
artistic family. Struck in high-quality silver at the Royal Mint,
over 39,000 were issued within a year. Considering the
enormous expense entailed, the Waterloo Medal set high
standards that have been followed almost to modern times.
It also established a precedent for awarding a circular, silver
medal bearing the sovereign’s effigy and a symbolic representation
of the campaign, individually inscribed with the
The first campaign medal awarded to Canadians was the
Military General Service Medal, 1793-1814. Whilst recognizing
service in the Napoleonic Wars, it was also awarded for the
War of 1812. Issued belatedly in 1847, the medal identified the
recipient’s specific service with the addition of bars mounted
above on the ribbon. Considering the lengthy delay in issuing
this medal, it speaks well of the longevity of veterans that
over 26,000 claims were made for it between 1849 and 1852.
Three bars recognized action in Canada: FORT DETROIT,
CHATEAUGUAY and CHRYSTLER’S FARM. The medals were
named to each recipient, although workers at the Royal Mint
must have raised their collective eyebrows when they began
to impress some of them with names like ATONSA TEKAIONWANHONTERE,
WARRIOR and SHINGWAWKONCE, CHIEF.
Canadian soldiers, and sometimes civilians, continued to
receive campaign medals for participation in a succession of
“troubles” against Fenians (1866, 1870), Louis Riel (1870, 1885)
and the Boers (1899-1902). Each medal followed the pattern
established by the Waterloo Medal, with a progressively aging
head of Queen Victoria on the obverse and a symbolic motif
on the reverse. The portraits of Victoria were rendered by
William Wyon, nephew of Thomas Wyon. William studied
in the schools of the Royal Academy, London and received a
gold medal from the Society of Arts. Elected to the RA in
1838, he was the first medallist thus honoured. His portrait
of Queen Victoria appeared on all coinage until 1887 and on
all postage stamps until 1902, when she died.
The reverse of the Canada General Service Medal 1866-70,
issued to those who repelled the Fenians and expelled Louis
Riel from Red River, celebrated the newly-founded country
with the national flag on the reverse, surrounded by maple
leaves and surmounted with the word CANADA. Accurately
predicting an eventual change, the ribbon mirrors our
current flag with three vertical bands of red/white/red.
The North West Canada Medal 1885, marking the eventual
defeat of Riel, unimaginatively rearranged the maple leaves
and simply replaced the word CANADA with the more
descriptive NORTH WEST CANADA 1885. The medal was only
reluctantly issued after some rather shameless lobbying on the
part of Canadians, so it may be that the Royal Mint decided to
reduce costs by simply recycling an earlier design.
Hardly had the South African War begun in October 1899,
before Queen Victoria authorised the issue of an appropriate
campaign medal. Confident of an early victory, the original
design of the reverse displayed a triumphant figure of
Britannia holding a laurel wreath and the somewhat presumptuous
date 1899-1900. The uncooperative Boers, however,
refused to be beaten to the imperial timetable and the war
dragged on until 1902. The optimistic dates were chiselled off
the medal dies at the Royal Mint although the original “ghost
dates” can sometimes still be discerned on the later, undated
issues. A Canadian unit, Lord Strathcona’s Horse, fulfilling the
terms of their own one-year enlistment, departed in 1900 and
were the only regiment to receive the dated medals, much
prized by today’s collector.
The symbolism of other campaign medals has occasionally
required “adjustment” as when the original design of the
China War Medal was altered to prevent possible ill feeling
on the part of the recently defeated Chinese. The initially
proposed reverse was to portray a triumphant British lion
with its paw resting on a recumbent Chinese dragon. Fearing
that this might offend Chinese sensibilities, it was quickly
changed to an apolitical trophy of arms, yet with a Latin
motto that reminded readers of the facts: ARMIS EXPOSCERE
PACEM (To pray for peace by force of arms.)
The mass armies of the two world wars received a variety
of campaign medals of traditional design and manufacture,
with Canadians receiving their fair share. The first completely
Canadian campaign medal, however, was a product of a
Second World War crisis. With voluntary enlistments
dropping and the invasion of mainland Europe imminent,
the Canadian government in 1943 developed a medal to
reward volunteers. As the medal was not awarded directly
by the sovereign, King George VI’s effigy did not appear on
it, his usual place on the obverse being occupied by seven
marching figures from the navy, army, air force and nursing
services. The design was prepared by the war artist Major
Charles Comfort from photographs taken in an Ottawa drill
hall and although recipients did not receive the medal until
after the war’s end, the ribbon, bearing a silver maple leaf,
was awarded to volunteers actually serving overseas.
Produced in .925 fine silver at the Royal Canadian Mint,
it retained most of the characteristics of a British campaign
medal, but it denoted a change in Canada’s approach to
the awarding of campaign medals.
Canadians continued to receive campaign medals from
the British government for the Korean War, but a gradual
Canadianisation of the honours system has taken place over
the past half century. Starting in 1967 with the institution
of the Order of Canada, service personnel have received
campaign medals designed and produced in this country.
Yet despite the changes, Canadian campaign medals continue
to reflect a high standard of both design and production.
These medals are worthy rewards for loyal service by
Canadians in places like Kosovo and Afghanistan but they
owe their general characteristics to the Waterloo Medal of
nearly two centuries ago. Next time you see someone wearing
campaign medals, have a thought for this continuing legacy.
The Duke of Wellington would be proud!
Mark A. Reid is an Artefact Documentalist at the Canadian War
Dorling, H. Taprell, Ribbons and Medals, George Philip,
Mayo, J.H. Medals and Decorations of the British Army and Navy,
Purves, Alec A. Collecting Medals and Decorations, Seaby,
The Art o f M i l i tary Medals
(continued from previous page)
The name of the medal’s designer, Thomas Wyon, is just discernible in the lower right exergue.