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Annual Booklist 2019-2020 : Robin N.W. Thomas

Dr Robin Thomas graduated with a PhD in archaeology from Southampton University in 1989. He worked initially in British Coal Corporation until privatisation and then developed an interest in maritime logistics, spending the rest of his career in the shipping industry. He has been a medal collector since his teenage years and has recently been elected President of the Orders & Medals Research Society (www.omrs.org).


The parents of my generation served in the Second World War and our Grandparents were in the Great War (not counting more distant forebears who fought in various nineteenth century colonial campaigns), so medals were something I grew up with. I well remember my first medal book being purchased as a Christmas present when I was aged about fifteen or sixteen, and this was really what got me started. It was Major L.L. Gordon’s British Battles and Medals, 5th edition (1979), a standard work that has been in continuous print since the first edition in 1947. The most recent 7th edition (London: Spink 2006) is a weighty 800 pages complete with numerous and excellent photos of the medals themselves, clasps and different naming styles. An account is given of every campaign and “BBM” is one of the few works that lists all the units qualifying for each medal or clasp, together with the numbers issued, so it was one of the first attempts to assess rarity.

As my finances gradually improved another title entered my consciousness. This was even longer, weightier, and harder to find but has fortunately now been republished: Medals and Decorations of the British Army and Navy by J.H. Mayo (2 vols. London: Archibald Constable 1897, republished by Naval & Military Press 2003). Despite the rather anonymous title, the great advantage of Mayo is that he published a considerable volume of original documents about the design and issuing of individual medals containing the attitudes of Government or Colonial officials involved with the process. He worked as the Assistant Military Secretary in the India Office until his death prior to publication, so was extremely well placed to source such material. The disadvantage of his work is that it ends with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee Medal 1887, and no aspiring author has yet sought to continue what he so ably started.

Although standard works such as Mayo and Gordon have an important place on most medal collector’s shelves, recent research has tended to focus on much more specific aspects of the discipline. Howard Williamson has spent a lifetime studying the Great War to produce three volumes of The Great War Medal Collectors Companion (Self published 2011-14, but available from the author or Naval & Military Press). He has studied every aspect of the design, manufacture and supply of each of the medals issued for the Great War, together with the associated items given to the troops or their next of kin such as the Princess Mary gift box and the memorial plaque. One complete volume is devoted to the location and war service of every unit (cavalry, yeomanry, Royal Engineers, infantry, Machine Gun Corps and Army Cyclist Corps) and another to the Regimental numbering system utilised by each unit and sub-unit together with the abbreviations found on all official documents associated with medals.

A more recent study, this time of the Crimea Medal, is by Tony Martin, William Pickering and Arthur Satterly ‘By Order of Her Majesty’ The Crimea Medal, Institution, Manufacture, Naming and Distribution (Leamington Spa: Orders & Medals Research Society 2017). Much of the book investigates how the Royal Mint managed to supply over 380,000 medals at extremely short notice using a network of contractors and sub-contractors, before looking in detail at the distribution mechanisms in place; the enormous interest of Queen Victoria and her key role in the genesis of the medal are also examined in detail. Much work still needs to be done on this fascinating subject, especially for the Army, where units departing the Crimea were dispersed world-wide, thus supply systems and timescales had to adapt much more to local circumstances than was the case with the Royal Navy, where medals were more easily issued to crews returning home at the end of their commissions.

My final book choice is Fred Larimore’s The Army Long Service and Good Conduct Medal (Leamington Spa: Orders and Medals Research Society 2014). This is the first and only study I have seen to examine the Army’s rewards system for Other Ranks, encompassing medals, Good Conduct Badges and additional pay for good service, long service or gallantry. The system started very late in comparison to most European armies, and evolved considerably during the nineteenth century. The subject is huge and the regulations were subject to constant change, so this book only scratches the surface of what should actually comprise multiple studies examining different aspects.

I am going to continue my theme of rewards for long or meritorious service for The Book That Has Yet To Be Written. The subject of individual soldier motivation, especially in my era of interest in the nineteenth century, is a fascinating one. To what extent did a developing rewards system serve to motivate the soldier to improve his conduct, what bearing did it have on promotions and what effect did attitudes amongst those responsible for distributing rewards or recognition (the officer class) have on the usage or effectiveness of it are just some of the questions I for one would be interested to see addressed.

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