How we remember them: Medals and decorations


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Medals and honours are awarded to men and women who have served in wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations.

At commemorative ceremonies service men and women, veterans and descendants of veterans wear military medals and decorations to signify their own or their family member’s service to the nation.

Officially, the only person entitled to claim medals as their own is the person awarded them, and they are worn on the left breast next to the heart. When relatives wear medals awarded to their family members they wear them on their right breast. And, sometimes veterans will wear medals on both sides: their own and those of a relative.

In the lead up to the 2018 Anzac Day commemorations a campaign was initiated by the Women Veterans Network Australia (WVNA) called ‘By the Left’. This campaign, aims to promote a better understanding of female veterans’ service and their right to wear their own service medals on the left. The campaign was initiated because female veterans were often asked whether their own medals belonged to a male relative.

a crowd of people standing around a cenotaph watching a woman wearing her medals on the left lay a wreath

Miss Evelyn A. Conyers, Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) Matron in Chief during the First World War, laying a wreath on the Edith Cavell Memorial on St Kilda Road on Anzac Day (AWM 136248).

While Australia’s own Honours and Awards System only dates back to 1975 (prior to this Australia used the British Imperial system), the practice of using military decorations to honour individuals and organisations dates back to ancient times.

Medals for bravery or participation in campaigns can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians and Romans, where plaques and necklaces of brass, copper and gold were awarded for outstanding feats of bravery. Later, Roman soldiers decorated the leather lappets that hung from their belts by attaching tokens and discs to signify the campaigns in which they fought.

The first British medals to be issued and classed appeared in 1588 and were worn around the neck.

The first official war medal, as we know it today, was the 1815 Waterloo Medal and was awarded with a ribbon and an instruction stating ‘... the ribbon issued with the medal shall never be worn but with the medal suspended on it’. From this time on, medals were struck for nearly every engagement and later medals were introduced as honours and awards.

Military awards have been quite unique at times, such as the ‘Queens Scarf of Honour’ that Queen Victoria personally knitted with her ladies in waiting for eight brave soldiers who fought in the Boer War. Narrandera Trooper Alfred Du Frayer of the New South Wales Mounted Rifles, who subsequently went on to fight for Australia as a Lieutenant in the First World War, was awarded one of these scarves.

Today, in Australia, there are many different types of recognition for bravery and service in the military including medals, ribbons, citations, commendations, badges and mentions in dispatches. Australians have also been frequent recipients of foreign commendations and awards.

Distinct awards have also been provided for outstanding devotion and service in Nursing such as the Royal Red Cross medal. Matron Evelyn Connors for instance was one of 42 Australian nurses to receive this award during the First World War and the only one to receive a bar to her award for her extraordinary services.

Perhaps the most well-known award remains the Victoria Cross which Australians have been awarded throughout our military history. The Victoria Cross was instituted in 1856 as a decoration to recognize gallantry in action by all ranks of the services. It was awarded to Australians under the Imperial system of awards and retained as the pre-eminent gallantry award in the Australian system.

Today the Australian system for recognizing service and bravery is administered by the Directorate of Honours and Awards who are responsible for the recognition of Australian Defence Force (ADF) members and ex-serving members in accordance with the Australian and Imperial Honours and Awards systems. A full list of medals and awards can be found at the Defence Medals and Honours website.

Commemorative ceremonies such as Anzac Day and Remembrance Day share many customs and traditions stemming from Australia’s long history of war service. In this series, we explore the origins of some of these customs and traditions to cement the importance of remembering our service men and women for future generations. To read more from this series visit the Anzac Centenary News page.