Federation Of Family History Societies

Using Medals to help trace your Ancestors


It is almost certain that one or more of your ancestors served their country at some point in the past.

This article will look at medals and how we can use them to help find out more about our ancestors.

British, Imperial & Commonwealth Medals were awarded to those serving in the Armed Forces and also to civilians.  The main types of awards are:

  • Gallantry Awards
  • Campaign Meals
  • Mention in Despatches
  • Miscellaneous Awards & Citations


Gallantry Awards

These were made for acts of bravery.  Until 1855 these were not official awards but were made by regiments or occasionally by the Crown.   At the battle of Edgehill during the Civil War two Gold medals for bravery were awarded.  Other medals were awarded on an ad hoc basis without any official system.  Many medals awarded to Officers were for distinguished service rather than individual acts of bravery.

The Crimean War provided the spur to the British Government to establish a series of Gallantry Awards for individual acts of bravery

The first awards were made in 1855 and the following medals were instituted:

  • The Victoria Cross                         – All ranks of the Army, Navy & Marines
  • The Distinguished Conduct Medal            – Other ranks of the Army
  • The Conspicuous Gallantry Medal            – Other ranks of the Navy & Marines

The numbers awarded of these first medals in the Crimean War were as follows:

  • The Victoria Cross                         – 111
  • The Distinguished Conduct Medal            – 670
  • The Conspicuous Gallantry Medal            – 10

If you know of an ancestor who was awarded one of these medals you can find more details in various places.   You may also search for names using both on-line and other sources at the National Archives in Kew.

The London Gazette


Gallantry awards were ‘Gazetted’ in the London Gazette and this usually takes the form of a citation describing the action and the act or acts of bravery.  In some cases the London Gazette will record acts of bravery that did not fulfil the criteria for a medal.

London Gazette, 9th November, 1897.

"Lieutenant Hector Lachlan Stewart MacLEAN, Indian Staff Corps, on account of his gallant conduct, would have been recommended to Her Majesty for the Victoria Cross had he survived.”
"During the fighting at Nawe Kili, in Upper Swat, on the 17th August, 1897, Lieutenant-Colonel R B ADAMS proceeded with Lieutenants H L S MacLEAN and Viscount FINCASTLE, and five men of the Guides, under a very heavy and close fire, to the rescue of Lieutenant R T GREAVES, Lancashire Fusiliers, who was lying disabled by a bullet wound and surrounded by the enemy's swordsmen. In bringing him under cover he (Lieutenant GREAVES) was struck by a bullet and killed. Lieutenant MacLEAN was mortally wounded, whilst the horses of Lieutenant-Colonel ADAMS and Lieutenant, Viscount FINCASTLE were shot, as well as two troop horses“
India Office, January 8, 1907.

Most gallantry awards are inscribed with the name, rank & regiment of the recipient, these are usually round the rim of medals and on the reverse of crosses. 

Where a second act of bravery is awarded the same medal a ‘Bar’ is awarded, this takes the form of a suspended bar being worn on the ribbon.

To date 3 Victoria Cross holders have been awarded a ‘Bar’ - all were medical personnel

Gallantry awards are given an order of precedence and many recommendations for a higher award were subsequently awarded a lower one.

The system of medal awards was changed in 1993 with many awards being discontinued and some of the awards previously only made to Officers & Warrant Officers being extended to All Ranks.

Below are listed the Gallantry Crosses and Orders:

  • The Victoria Cross
  • The Conspicuous Gallantry Cross
  • The George Cross
  • The Distinguished Service Order
  • The Distinguished Service Cross – Until 1901 the Conspicuous Service Cross
  • The Military Cross
  • Distinguished Flying Cross
  • Air Force Cross

Other ranks gallantry awards usually took the form of medals including:

  • The Distinguished Conduct Medal
  • The Conspicuous Gallantry Medal & The Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (Flying)
  • The George Medal
  • The Distinguished Service Medal
  • The Military Medal
  • Distinguished Flying Medal
  • Air Force Medal
  • The British Empire Medal for Gallantry
  • The Queen’s Gallantry Medal
  • The Meritorious Service Medal for Gallantry

Most Gallantry Awards are for an action or series of actions in the ‘Face of the Enemy’.  Some may be made for outstanding leadership at a gallant action again in the ‘Face of the Enemy’.

Some awards, however, are only made for actions where the enemy is not present, such as mine clearance, bomb disposal and more recently in actions where the incident was a ‘Blue on Blue’ or ‘Friendly Fire’ incident.  A recent award of the George Cross was made to a soldier who rescued comrades injured after being attacked by friendly aircraft.  As similar incident where soldiers were rescued from a vehicle whilst under fire from the enemy resulted in the award of a Victoria Cross.

Awards made for actions not necessarily in the ‘Face of the Enemy’ include:

  • The George Cross
  • The George Medal
  • The British Empire Medal for Gallantry
  • The Queen’s Gallantry Medal
  • The Meritorious Service Medal for Gallantry

Awards that can be made to civilians and in some cases the Armed Forces:

  • The George Cross
  • The Albert Medal – replaced by or exchanged for by the George Cross
  • The Edward Medal – replaced by or exchanged for by the George Cross
  • The Sea Gallantry Medal
  • The Empire Gallantry Medal – replaced by or exchanged for the George Cross
  • The George Medal
  • The British Empire Medal for Gallantry
  • The Queen’s Gallantry Medal
  • The Meritorious Service Medal for Gallantry
  • Various Police & Fire Service Medals


Mention in Despatches (MID)

The MID is an award that results from an act of bravery or outstanding service being mentioned in dispatches from the battle front to the War Office or Ministry of Defence.

From the First World War onwards it was indicated by an oak leaf or spray of oak leaves emblem being worn on the medal ribbon.

It continues to be awarded to this day.

mid-ww2-cut First World War medal-vic-mid-ww1-cut Second World War


Campaign Medals

Medals for service in the Armed Forces can be traced back many hundreds of years but the system was only regularized with the issue of the Waterloo Medal in 1815.  The many wars and actions during the second half of the 19th Century were represented by many, many medals.

Details of early medals, for example the Waterloo Medal , can be found at the National Archives in Kew.
Details of this medal are contained in the Waterloo Medal Book and is divided into sections by regiments.  It lists all officers and men who served in the battle.  Its reference is MINT 16/112.

Before 1914, there are few indexes to medal issues so a search will require knowledge of extra information such as regiment or corps and possibly other related information, particularly if the surname is a popular one!

Useful references are
Army     WO 100                – Campaign Medals & Award Rolls
Navy      ADM 171              – Admiralty, & MOD, Navy Dept: Medal Rolls
First World War medals can be traced using the online service from the National Archives.
Medals are listed on cards called Medal Index Cards. 

The cards contain almost all the information you will be able to find but they are an index to the actual Medal Rolls, the Rolls may also contain the Battalion Number, which is necessary if you are going to look at War Diaries.

Useful references for First World War Army Medals are:

Index Cards        WO 372
Medal Rolls         WO 329

First World War Navy & Marine Medals are in alphabetical order so no index cards exist.  The rolls are in

Medal Rolls         ADM 171


First World War Medals

1914 Star

1914 Star

Service ashore in France and Flanders between 5 Aug and 25 Nov 1914.

1914/15 Star

1914/15 Star

Service ashore in France and Flanders between 23 Nov 1914 and 31 Dec 1915.

British War Medal

Britsh War Medal

For Military & Civilians who served between 5 Aug 1914 and 11 Nov 1918

Victory Medal

Victory Medal

Awarded to all eligible personnel who served on the establishment of a unit in an operational theatre, who served between5 Aug 1914 and 11 Nov 1918

Territorial Force Medal

Territorial Force Medal

Awarded to members of the Territorial Force serving on or prior to 30 Sep 1914 and who served on the establishmentof a unit in an operational theatre, between 5 Aug 1914 and 11 Nov 1918

Mercantile Marine Medal

Mercantile Marine Medal

Awarded by the Board of Trade to Merchant Seamen who had served at sea during the war.

Silver War Badge

Silver War Badge

THe badge was awarded to all of those military personal who were discharged as a result of sickness or wounds contracted or received during the war, either at home or overseas.

Medal Index cards

Medal Card - Design 1 Medal Card - Design 2

The cards are arranged 6 to a page and the indexes can be searched free of charge; each page of 6 costs £3.50 to download.  They can be viewed for free at TNA.
If the surname you are searching for is a frequent one, you may need to know other information such as number and/or Regiment/Corps

Medal Rolls

WO 329/2614

These are the documents that the indexes refer to and usually do not contain much more information than  is on the cards.

Post World War One medals

Details of post First World War Medals are not held at TNA and you need to contact the relevant Medal Offices for the Navy, Army, or Royal Air Force.

TNA do hold some Army medal records for campaigns up to 1939 and these are held in WO 100

Second World War Medals issued to Merchant Seamen

Medals issued to Merchant Seaman who served in the Second World War are available through the TNA.  The indexes are online and as for the First World War Records can be viewed for free at TNA.  The indexes contain applications for medals and there may be seamen who are entitled but no application has yet been made.   The records are contained in  BT 395

Miscellaneous Awards & Citations

In addition to medals awards may take the form of a Commendation, usually recorded in a scroll certificate.
These include:

  • The King’s (Queen’s) Commendation for Brave Conduct
  • The King’s (Queen’s) Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air

They are represented on the medal or the uniform as a small oak leaf emblem.

In November 2004 an award was made to:

Army Cadet Lance Corporal Vicky MURRAY aged 14 for rescuing an elderly lady during a serious fire.

Medals are also issued for long service and to commemorate events such as Coronations and Jubilees.
These are also indexed at TNA and can be found in:

ADM 171
WO 32 & WO 102
MINT 6 & MINT 16 & MINT 20 & MINT 23 & MINT 24

Researching medals can be very rewarding particularly if you have the original medals of one of your ancestors.  I hope that this article will prompt you to investigate the medals of some of your ancestors and I hope that you have luck in tracing their awards.

Federation of Family History Societies

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Page updated by the webmaster on 19 March 2010

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