Volume 54, Number 5, May 2016
Broadening our horizons SOMETIMES, as a medal collector, it is easy to forget that military history holds an interest for many outside our relatively narrow hobby. Many of us have, I am sure, been to militaria fairs and so are familiar with the concept that other things “military” attract collectors too and indeed some of you may well have the odd uniform, cap badge or even weapon as part of your collection. In my experience however, we medal collectors tend to only have these things in connection with our medals: the uniform of a recipient, his diary, photographs or similar—we don’t often collect other militaria in its own right. The reason is simple, we collect “men”—the stories behind the medals are, as a rule, what is important and the actual physical item is considered a representation of that, as much as something to collect in its own right. Uniforms (unless attributable), weapons, ordnance, trench art, photographs without names attached, helmets, cap badges and the like don’t have that “extra” aspect that makes medals so personal and we are often guilty of overlooking them. However, I would suggest, in this Somme anniversary year, that we look again at the broader picture. We were fortunate enough to be invited to Whitgift School in Croydon, Surrey, recently to look at their “Remembering 1916” exhibition and initially were sceptical. We remembered such things from our own past and couldn’t help but worry that this, like them, would be somewhat . . . well, amateurish. Nothing could be further from the truth, with the school putting on a truly professional exhibition that both educates and amazes, with displays of World War I artefacts that are seldom seen outside the confines of a museum. They were, in the main, loaned by two local collectors who have, thanks to their generosity, allowed the exhibition to build up a complete story of what life was like both for combatants and those left at home in 1916. Medals, much as we may cherish them, can’t do that, at least not in the same way. A collection of medals, impressive though it may be, can’t tell a complete social story in quite the same as a varied collection of clothing, weaponry, etc., can and whilst I am in no way suggesting we should suddenly all start becoming militaria collectors, I am suggesting that it is worth remembering the context in which the medals we so love were awarded. For example, you may have silver war badges in your collection and will know that they were awarded, in part, to stop wounded servicemen from being hassled by women with white feathers accusing them of cowardice—but have you actually ever seen one of the white feathers? You may collect medals to men present at Jutland but have you ever seen one of the flags that flew over ships from the German or British fleets? You may have medals in your collection to men who fought at Ypres, may know about the battle in great detail, but have you ever actually seen a copy of the “Wipers Times” a newspaper your men may very well have read. All these things, and far more, are on display at Whitgift and serve to put the objects in our collections into context in a way we may not have considered before. I can’t recommend a trip to the exhibition enough, especially as there are some very nice medals on display too! On the subject of Whitgift, they are very keen to learn more about Old Whitgiftians who served in either war, particularly those who lost their lives in World War I. The most famous Old Whitgiftian, at least as far as medal collectors are concerned, is probably the World War II night-fighter “Cats Eyes” Cunningham, but 25 years earlier a whole other generation of young men from the school went into combat and the curators of the exhibition are keen to know more about them. If any reader has any medal to former pupils of the school do get in touch with them—see page 19 for details of the exhibition and how to contact them.
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