Men behind the medals

Stories behind the medalsStories behind the medals

Mark Smith – the militaria expert on the Antiques Roadshow – will be giving a talk for the Woodford and District branch of the National Trust this month and invites residents to bring along their family medals.

Medals, those little bits of metal hung from coloured ribbons worn by old soldiers on Remembrance Day, are so much more than they look. To the trained eye, one can tell where a person has seen service, how long they served for and if they were ever decorated for an act of heroism in a forgotten war that, at one time, was national news.

To the owner, medals may be worn proudly or hidden in a drawer, never to see the light of day. The first is worn as a reminder of actions in far-off countries, of hardships and comradeship, the like of which has never been known since. The other is a reminder of death, wounds, catastrophe, never to be talked of but always there, at the back of the mind, at the back of the drawer.

My father's World War Two medals lived in a sideboard. I looked at them with awe most weeks when visiting my nan's house. One day, she gave me the medals and said: "Look after them, they are precious." I have been looking after them, and indeed, many other people's medals, for the best part of 50 years now. Medals have been a fascination of mine all my life.

My talk on the men (and women) behind the medals will explore the origins of medals. From the unnamed commemorative coins of the Battle of Trafalgar, to the ubiquitous 'Pip, Squeak and Wilfred' of the Great War, the common service medals given nicknames by the soldiers that represent, in many homes across the country and in days of Empire and now the Commonwealth, a bond of true hardship forged in the mud and blood of the trenches. A war all but forgotten by most but for those who were there. It was supposed to be the war that ended all wars. Medals showed they were there, had participated and had come home; many of those same medals hung in frames in dark, silent parlours – a memorial to a lost son, husband or father.

Medals are individual people; they may all look the same but as time moved on from the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 through the Victorian age where British soldiers were camped all over the world, the concept of service and recognition for what one had done and where one had been became an important part of military and civilian life. As medals became more common, rewards for those who had shown particular acts of bravery were also instigated, with a hierarchy of bravery that still exists to this day.

The medals for me are time machines which enable me to transport myself back to a moment in time on a smoke-filled battlefield and to be there with the name of a man who actually fought on that day, a day now only remembered in our history books. But these were real people and medals are the key to unlocking their story.

This particular talk will explain the invention of the concept of medals, of campaign and gallantry awards and will explore some of the men and women who fought on the 18th-century plains of India and the fields of Waterloo to the trenches of the Somme and the skies of the Battle of Britain. If you can attend, I would like you to bring your family medals along so we can all see whose stories we can uncover.

Mark's talk will take place at Trinity Catholic High School in Woodford Green on 15 February from 8pm (visitors: £3). For more information, call 020 8508 9541

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