Heroes of the Albert Medal
Volume 46, Number 3, March 2008
Thin edge of the wedge?... The recent announcement that the criteria for the award of the Veterans Badge is to be extended to cover all those who have served with the Armed Forces (regardless of dates of service) and the announcement of badges for the members of the World War II Land Army, the “Bevin Boys”and now the Air Transport Auxilliary (all following on from institution of the Merchant Seafarers Veterans Badge) brings the subject of medatlic recognition for service again to the fore and inevitably throws up the age old problems of just what merits a medal, what merits a badge and what shouldn’t be formally recognised at all. One of the key differences between the British (and Commonwealth) system of recognition and that adopted by certain other countries is that our way of doing things has always been traditionally sparse, some may say mean, when it comes to the handing out of medals—at least to the rank and file. A serviceman or woman could serve for years without anything to show for their time in uniform, could be shot at daily and, apparently, have no formal thanks from the Government, whilst other service personnel from other countries could have rows upon rows of ribbons or medals simply for turning up on time (well, maybe not, but you get my meaning). Pleas for retrospective recognition fell on deaf ears, the desire to right the perceived wrongs of the past was sidelined and the legitimate claim by many that the medals they had been awarded weren’t adequate (particularly in the case of World War II Stars where the eligibility criteria was a mystery to most) was ignored. In recent years however, things have changed—first came the raft of “unofficial commemoratives” that still abound today, medals issued by private companies, often with the backing of a veteran’s organisation, to “fill a gap” left by the lack of official recognition. These were fine for what they were—but no one can deny that as more companies jumped on the bandwagon and more and more tenuous links to “service” were made, the proliferation of medals on some chests got frankly ludicrous. Then came the “big one” the decision to grant a medal (or at least a clasp) for the Suez campaign, something that had been strenuously denied to veterans by successive governments; suddenly it seemed that there was potential for all wrongs to be righted, all the perceived injustices to be made good. If the government of the “noughties” could grant a medal for an action in the fifties then surely other grievances could be addressed. Campaigns by various other veterans’ organisations proliferated, with calls for new campaign medals or clasps—either to commemorate service hitherto “ignored” or to differentiate between theatres of operations for which one wide reaching medal had thus far been awarded. Unfortunately, in a masterpiece of spin, the government decreed that whilst the award of the Suez medal might look like a u-turn of policy in fact it was no such thing and that the rule that no new medal could be awarded for an action/campaign etc., that took place over five years ago was still in place—leaving aggrieved veterans still campaigning. Then attitudes changed again—with the backdrop of the Afghan and Iraq conflicts and their unpopularity at home, a campaign was started to encourage a better attitude toward returning servicemen and women, with towns being urged to hold homecoming parades etc. All well and good—until it was pointed out that there were other veterans of previous wars who were still waiting to be honoured—how could the government encourage the public to welcome the heroes home if they themselves turned their back on those that went before? A good point and so the badges arrived—first the Veterans Badge with a criteria that originally just encompassed the World War II generation of servicemen, then one for the Arctic Convoy veterans who claimed that the Atlantic Star was not enough to cover the hardship and conditions they suffered, followed by the Merchant Seaman’s Badge and now these new ones for the Bevin Boys and Land Girls. All well and good, on the surface, but aren’t we in danger of overkill? No-one would deny that recognition should be given where it is due but these badges don’t have the strict criteria of official medals and that, I fear, will cause a problem. It seems that if you were in the Land Army during World War II you can apply for a badge; if you were on a Merchant vessel operated to facilitate military operations you can apply for a badge and now, with the broadening of the criteria, if you’ve served in the British forces at any time, you can apply for a badge etc. However, already there are voices of dissent—is it right that a sailor who served on one ship seconded to a “military” operation once should get the same “recognition” as one who served for far longer and came under fire? Is it right that a soldier who served a few months, all at home, and then decided that Army life wasn’t for him gets to wear the same badge on his lapel as someone who spent most of his adult life in uniform? I don’t know, but what I do know is that these issues will not go away and it can only be a matter of time before those who have served for long periods of time and/or saw action are calling for insignia to differentiate themselves from those who didn’t. How long will it be before we see “grades” of badge denoting service, different colours for where you were, what you did and how long you did it for? And how long before those badges, those grades, are watered down still further until every conceivable combination of service length, theatre of operation and action is catered for? Many people, many veterans, already feel “fobbed off” by these badges, they still feel that they deserve proper medallic recognition—and I can’t see how introducing more badges, and widening the criteria for those already in existence is going to help the situation in any way. Whilst Whitehall may think that a badge is the perfect answer to a sticky political situation I fear someone hasn’t quite thought it through properly. This one isn’t over yet!
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