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Volume 47, Number 6, June 2009
THERE has been a plethora of medal and military related stories in the press recently making my job infinitely easier when it comes to writing this “Comment”. I had thought to write about the recent opening of the unmarked mass grave of World War I soldiers at Fromelles and the potential uncovering of further burial sites thanks to the recently re-discovered Red Cross records, however, something came along that, medallically at least, completely eclipsed that idea. For the first time in over 300 years of recorded British military history, an inquiry has been opened into the awarding of gallantry medals in an active campaign and a serving Major has been arrested following claims that honours may have been based on false “write ups”. Major Robert Armstrong of the Royal Artillery, who received a Military Cross for “consistent bravery and inspirational leadership” in Afghanistan in March 2008, was detained by Military Police at the beginning of May and interviewed under caution, facing allegations that he “exaggerated his involvement in battles and that actions attributed to himself were actually those of fellow officers”. This in turn has led to the Ministry of Defence suggesting that dozens of gallantry awards to British troops fighting in Helmand province in Afghanistan could be reviewed. Apparently, according to various news sources, there has been concern for some time in the MOD with regards to “medal inflation” in Afghanistan with some units having a greater number of medals awarded to them during this campaign than they might otherwise have received elsewhere. Indeed even amongst ex-servicemen there have been rumblings that too any “gongs” were being given out, but that sort of talk is not entirely unusual—those who fought in World War I complained that the issues from World War II were excessive; those who served in Northern Ireland felt that their service should have been recognised with a separate medal as it was with the Gulf War, and so on. But this is now far more serious than a little bit of “medal envy” and has cut right to the heart of the British honours system. The problem has been exacerbated by the fact that the man who wrote up the citation for Armstrong’s MC, Lt-Col Edward Freely, Commanding Officer of the Royal Irish Battle Group, the group to which the Major was attached, also wrote up 17 other citations for his battle group which led to a “haul” that included no fewer than three Conspicuous Gallantry Crosses—an unprecedented feat and one that has led to allegations of more falsification. What is worse is that these accusations have not come from faceless bureaucrats at the Ministry but from fellow officers—a telling sign that something is wrong somewhere. Of course, the idea of too many medals being awarded or medals being awarded indiscriminately is an old chestnut in the medal world and one any collector is familiar with—you only have to look at many of the Victoria Crosses and DSOs given to high ranking officers throughout the Victorian Campaigns to wonder whether a certain amount of license wasn’t given in some cases; or if you look at the sheer number of Military Medals awarded in World War I you can’t help but wonder if the wry comment that they were “handed down with the rations” doesn’t have a ring of truth to it and when it comes to the awarding of campaign medals to those who weren’t actually doing any fighting at the front but rather were “behind the lines”, well . . . that argument will run and run. “Medal Inflation” is not a modern phenomenon and you can easily see why it occurs—the soldiers are there, fighting many miles from home and they feel they’re being forgotten—throw in a few medals and, bingo! . . . they feel appreciated again. However, that can’t work forever. With medal inflation not only do those that receive the medals begin to question whether or not they were well deserved, but worse, those who DID do something to be properly deserving of that honour are now tarred with the same brush as those who perhaps didn’t, their award is cheapened and no-one wins. This is true of anything in life, from medals through to exam results, and only serves to undermine the very morale it sought to boost. Now we’re being told of an enquiry and inevitably any serviceman or woman who has received a gallantry award whilst serving in Afghanistan will either begin to doubt for themselves the award’s worth or at the very least find others speculating as to whether it should have been awarded at all. There can be no doubt that no-one is going to win from this mess, even if no charges are brought, no allegations substantiated, the mud has been slung and some of it will stick, with every medal winner who fought so bravely for their gong having some of the lustre taken from it. True medal inflation shouldn’t be allowed to continue, it does cheapen things and detracts from those who are truly deserving but I question whether it was really necessary to start arresting people and instigating inquiries—by doing so the dirty linen is being washed in public and the public are an unforgiving bunch with long memories. Perhaps a quiet word in an ear or two, a swift rap on the knuckles in private would have served the purpose better, allowing those who are fighting, those who are being legitimately rewarded for heroism the chance to get on and do the job they’re trying to do so that they can get home that little bit quicker.
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