Medals of France

Page © 1997 Micheal Shackelford
Images courtesy of Hendrik Meersschaert and Arnaud Leclere and other contributors.
Text by H.M and M.S.

- Légion d'Honneur -- This order, the highest French distinction, is awarded to all persons which distinguished themselves through civilian or military valour. The order was instituted early in the 19th century (1802) by the then First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, in 4 classes. In 1805 a fifth, and highest class, was added. These classes are :

When awarded for war services, the Légion d'Honneur carried automatic award of the Croix de Guerre with palm. Shown, is the Obverse and Reverse of the 4th class award, i.e. "Officier" as issued between 1870-1940 (French 3rd Republic).
Obverse text : REPUBLIQUE FRANÇAISE 1870
Reverse text : HONNEUR ET PATRIE (Honour and Fatherland)

- Médaille Militaire - This medal is roughly the French counterpart to the Distinguished Conduct Medal. It was awarded only to general officers in charge of armies, admirals in charge of fleets, or non-commissioned officers who distinguished themselves in war. The medal was instituted on 22 January 1852 during the reign of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, President of the 2nd Republic. The example shown is as issued between 1870-1940 (French 3rd Republic) (Reverse)

-Croix de Guerre (War Cross 1914-1918 ) Probably the best known French decoration, this cross was awarded to all those who were mentioned in dispatches since the outbreak of war (2 August 1914).
It was instituted on 8 April 1915 as an outward recognition for being mentioned in the order of the day of an army, corps, division, brigade or batallion. Award of the Legion of Honour for valour displayed on the field or of the Military Medal automatically brought entitlement to the War Cross.

According to the nature of the mention, emblems were affixed on the ribbon:

By 1 March 1920 already more than 2,055,000 crosses had been awarded. The reverse side bears the year 1914 together with the year in which they were struck (1915, 1916, 1917 or 1918).

- Croix de Guerre des Théatres d'Opérations Extérieurs. This war cross was created in 1921 for award to French and Colonial troops serving aborad. The 'regular' Croix de Guerre was intended to cover action in and around France only. The obverse of the crosses is the same, the reverse carries the cross's name in the center in lieu of the dates 1914-1918. The ribbon is also different, being red/blue/red instead of the other croix's green with thin red stripes.

- Insigne du Blessé Militaire - Awarded to members of the French Army or Navy who were wounded or invalided through wounds or illnesses caused by the 1st World War.
Originally only a ribbon was instituted in November 1916. Years later this ribbon was replaced by the cross.

A civilian counterpart award, the Insigne du Blessé Civil, was warded to civilians who were wounded or invalided through wounds or illnesses caused by the 1st World War. Originally only a ribbon was instituted (probably on 1 July 1918). As with its military counterpart, only years later this ribbon was replaced by the medallion. It is thought that the youngest recipient was a 2-year old wounded by an artillery grenade during a bombardment of Paris.

- Médaille des Évadés -- (Medal for Escaped Prisoners of War, Reverse side shown enlarged) This medal was awarded to military personnel as well as civilians who escaped through enemy lines and put themselves at the disposal of the French military authorities.
It was instituted on 20 August 1926 and could also be awarded to inhabitants of Alsace and Lorraine (two border regions which in the past changed hands between Germany and France a number of times) who deserted from the German Army to enlist in the French Forces.

- Médaille des Prisonniers Civils, Déportés ereteken Otages de la Grande Guerre 1914-18. (Medal for Civilian Prisoners, Deportees and Hostages of the Great War, 1914-1918) This medal was awarded to inhabitants of the regions occupied by Germany during WWI, civilian prisoners, deportees, hostages or internees in concentration camps, who were not eligible for the Victims of the Invasion Medal. It was instituted as late as 14 March 1936 and some 11,000 were issued. The reverse bears the medal's title.

- Croix du Combattant Volontaire -This cross was awarded to volunteers (also foreigners) who saw service at the front in a French combattant unit. It was instituted on 4 July 1935 and replaced the bar "Engagé Volontaire" which could be awarded with the French Commemorative Medal 1914-1918.

The medal's reverse shows the dates 1914-1918 in the medaillon's lower part and the words COMBATTANT VOLONTAIRE in the medaillon's inner border. The colours of the ribbon are a combination of red (Legion of Honour), Military Medal (yellow and green) and the War Cross (green with red stripes). (A WWII issue also exist: identical but for the reverse dates which are 1939-1945.)

- Croix du Combattant - (Combatant's Cross) This cross was awarded to all military personnel which fought on the front. It was instituted on 28 June 1930 as a visible distinction for the holders of the "Combatant's Card" (Holders of this card were entitled to assistance from the "National Office for Combatants"). Those who had received the WWI cross and were issued a "Combatant's Card" for WWII service as well could wear two bars on the ribbon "1914-1918" and "1939-1945". Reverse.

-Médaille Commémorative Française 1914-1918 - Awarded to all members of the French Armed Forces who saw service between 2 August 1914 and 11 November 1918. Instituted on 23 June 1920, it could also be conferred on members of the Merchant Navy, medical personnel, local authorities, police of fire brigades of bombed cities etc. Before the Cross for Volunteer Combatants was instituted, a bar "Engagé Volontaire" could be worn on the ribbon. (The Medal's reverse is shown enlarged)

-Médaille de la Victoire 1914-1918 - also called "Médaille Interalliée" as all allies issued one with this particular ribbon. Awarded to all members of the armed forces who served for a minimum of 3 months during WWI.
It was instituted on 20 July 1922 and was also conferred on medical personnel, prisoners of war, escaped prisoners etc. It is worn immediately after French orders and decorations, i.e. before any colonial orders or decorations and before any campaign or commemorative medals. A number of unofficial medals were struck and can be found regularly.
The medal's reverse bearing the text "RF La Grande Gverre povr la Civilisation 1914-1918" (RF = République Française - The Great War for Civilization)

- Médaille Commémorative d'Orient - Awarded to all members of the expeditionary army which fought in the Balkans. This theatre of war is generally lesser known. The Orient army was formed by French and British troops and also included Serbian units and units of other Balkan countries. They fought the German and Bulgarian armies in Macedonia and the Balkan. The medal was instituted on 15 June 1926.
Medal's reverse bearing the word "Orient" and in the central flag "Honneur et Patrie 1915 1918" (Honour and Fatherland) The medal's obverse is the same as the Dardanelles medal.

- Médaille Commémorative des Dardanelles - Awarded to all members of the expeditionary army which fought in the Dardanelles. This medal was instituted together with the previous one, on 15 June 1926 and is identical but for the ribbon and the reverse inscription "Dardanelles" (instead of Orient). The ribbons vary too.

- Médaille de la Reconnaissance Française - Awarded to civilians for works of benevolance at home or abroad, in helping the sick or wounded, caring for families of those killed in the war, caring for mutilated, blind, orphaned, or homeless families ruined by the war etc.
It was instituted on 13 july 1917 in three classes : the 1st class in silver-gilt, the 2nd class in silver and the 3rd class in bronze. (Reverse shown enlarged) In 1945 a new medal was established, with the same ribbon but with an altered design, to recognize the same deeds performed during WWII.

- Médaille des Victimes de l'Invasion - (The Medal for Victims of the Invasion ) instituted on 30 June 1921 in 3 classes (silver-gilt, silver and bronze) and awarded to those who had been rendered homeless or otherwise endured suffering resulting from the German invasion. A bar "Prisonniers Politiques" or "Otages de Guerre" (resp. "political prisoners" and "war hostages") could be worn on the ribbon. Reverse.

- Médaille de la Fidélité Française - (The Medal for Fidelity to France) instituted on 3 July 1922 and awarded to inhabitants of the two border regions of Alsace and Lorraine, who had been either imprisoned or exiled by the occupying Germans because of their loyalty to France. A bar on the ribbon bears the word "Fidélité" and a bronze star indicates each year of imprisonment or exile.
Ribbon = blue with red outer and white inner side stripes an a narrow white edge. Obverse : two women seated, looking out across country. Reverse : a bundle of fasces between crossed oak and laurel sprays, with a 3-foldriband, lettered "Liberté / Egalité / Fraternité" (the French national motto). Metal : bronze.

Médaille d'honneur pour actes de courage et de dévouement (Medal of Honor for Acts of Courage and Devotion) This is an old award, with a somewhat complicated history. As an award, it existed since the days
of Louis XIV. King Louis Philippe made it a wearable medal on April 12, 1831. Over the years, the design of the medal has varied depending of it was issued by the Monarchy, the Empire, or the Republic. Medals of Honor were bestowed by certain Ministries within the French government which had their own variations in medallion the design. The ribbon was always Blue / White / Red. There were five classes of this award. The lowest class had a bronze medallion, hung from a plain Blue/White/Red ribbon. Next came the Silver, 2nd Class, with a silver medallion, hung from the simple ribbon. Silver First Class had a silver medallion, but added a silver wreath device pinned to the ribbon. The 'Vermeill' award had a silver-gilt medallion, and silver-gilt wreath pin on the ribbon. The highest level of the award was the Gold, which had a gold medallion (though sometimes this was also silver-gilt when gold was in short supply). The Gold award also had a gold wreath pin and a tricolor rosette on the ribbon.
During WWI, there was a Medal of Honor issued by the Interior Ministry (Obverse - Reverse) and the Colonial Ministry. (Obverse - Reverse) These were designed by O. Roty in 1897. The Navy (Obverse - Reverse) and Merchant Marine (Obverse - Reverse) issued their own variant of the Medal of Honor, theirs designed by G. Marey in 1899. The Navy medals were further distinguished for having a red anchor figure in the white stripe of the ribbon. The navy medals added a sixth class by dividing the gold into first and second class. The Gold, 2nd Class had just a tricolor rosette on the ribbon. Gold 1st Class had both the rosette and a gold anchor pin on its ribbon. (Thanks to Alain Gilles for research and most of these images)

Médaille d'honneur des affaires étrangères, (Medal of honor of Foreign Affairs) In 1875, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs was allowed to award its own Medal of Honor, very similar to, but notreplacing the existing Medal of Honor described above. These were awarded by the Ministry for acts of courage by French citizens abroad, or foreigners. This medal hung from the same Blue / White / Red ribbon and came in three classes : bronze, silver and silver-gilt.
The medal award during WWI was designed by D. Dupuis in 1887. If awarded for civil action, the medallion hung from a simple suspension device. (Obverse - Reverse) If awarded for military action, crossed swords were added to the suspension. (Obverse - Reverse) After October 1917, the suspension device was changed to include an oak wreath. (Obverse - Reverse) These medals can be called the "Médaille d'Honneur du President de la République", if the award certificates are signed by the President. Note that this certificate carries illustrations of an earlier medallion design. (Thanks to Alain Gilles for research and most of these images)

Red Cross Medals. During the First World War, the French Red Cross was composed of three distinct, and fairly autonomous societies. The oldest was the Société de Secours aux Blessés Militaires, (SSBM) established in 1864. Next was the Association des Dames Française (ADF), created in 1879. The youngest of the three was the Union des Femmes Françaises, (UFF) begun in 1881. Each of these three Red Cross societies issued three different types of medals. Each issued a membership medal, a commemorative for the war, and each issued a merit award. In some cases there were different models or designs. Each of these medals hung from a white ribbon with a red cross. Click the links below to view the obverse sides of each. (These Red Cross medals and information courtesy of Alain Gilles)

SSBM Badge Commemorative Award

ADF Badge Commemorative Award

UFF Badge (1st Model) Comm. for nurses Award
Badge (2nd Model) Comm. for admin.
Badge (3rd Model)

Unofficial medals
France also had a number of unofficial medals commemorating either a battle, a town or a regiment. The most conspicuous of these are the many Verdun Medals.

- Verdun Medal, created 20 november 1916, for issue to the soldiers in the battle for Verdun -- February to November 1916. There were six or seven different designs for the Verdun Medal's medallion. These were unofficial awards as far as the nation of France was concerned. As such, they could not be 'legally' worn on the military uniform as part of parade-dress.
They were awarded by the town itself, to Allied servicemen who fought between the Argonne and St.Mihel. As such, many American soldiers came back with this medal. Other versions of Verdun medal were struck as replacements, commemoratives, or just souviners, so possession of a Verdun medals does not necessarily denote active service in that area.
The original design was the "Vernier" -- Obverse -- Reverse. Here, too, is an award certificate for the Verdun medal. Note the dates in the 1920s. A 'coin' version of the Vernier medal was issued before the wearable one, suspended from a ribbon. Note the different signature and higher level of detail in this die.

Demand for the Verdun medal exceeded supply. Other suppliers (and artists) stepped in with versions of their own. (Images courtesy of Hendrik Meersschaert unless noted otherwise.)

The "Prudhomme" version:
Obverse -- Reverse

The Augier version:
Obverse, -- Reverse

The Revillion version:
Obverse -- Reverse

An "Anonymous" version, artist unknown:
Obverse -- Reverse

The Rene version: (courtesy Alain Gilles)
Obverse. -- Reverse

The Steiner version: (rare, sketch only -- if you have a scan you could share, contact me.)

The Rasumny version: (courtesy Alain Gilles)
Obverse --

Marne Medal -- This medal was issued to soldiers who fought in the Marne battles, by the Soldiers of the Marne Association (a private group). It was first issued in 1937, and was still awarded up into the 1980s until the Association deemed there to be no more surviving Marne veterans. The Association was then merged into another group as a general memorial organization which still holds yearly ceremonies and such.
Other groups also issued Marne medals. This example, not issued by the Soldiers of the Marne Association, clearly carries the inscription "BATAILLE DE LA MARNE" and "SEPTEMBRE 1914" on the obverse, clearly celebrating the First Marne battle, rather than both. You can also see from the image, that it was a plated medal, as opposed to solid bronze, etc. The reverse has the traditional battle maiden imagery.

St. Mihiel Medal -- This medal was created by the town of St. Mihiel in 1936 to recognize the efforts of Allied soldiers in the liberation of St.Mihiel. Since St. Mihiel was in the American Sector, many American servicemen were eligible for this medal. Two designs exist for this medal. One design has, on its obverse, the traditional battle maiden presiding over a battle in progress. The reverse has sculpted trench map and the inscription, "12 & 13 Sept 1918, The American Troops operating victoriously in the St. Mihiel Sector broke the resistance of the enemy and captured 13,300 prisoners" This inscription is in English on the left side, repeated in French on the right.
A second design has, on its obverse, the battle maiden greeting a single soldier, with "1918" at the bottom. The reverse carries the arms of the town. Both versions have the same yellow / red / yellow ribbon.

Chateau-Thierry Medal -- Created in July 1920 by the town, to celebrate the efforts of American and French soldiers who fought in the vicinity. Two basic designs exist for this medal, but there are variants. One design depicts, on its obverse, the busts of George Washington and Lafayette, both facing left, the latter in front. The words "Chateau-Thierry: Cote 204" are in raised letters on the 'sash' suspension device. The reverse has the image of the Legion d' Honneur. I've seen two variants of this first design. One has finer details, such as the inscription of "WASHINGTON" and "LAFAYETTE" around the rim of the obverse, and more delicate details in the suspension device. Another variant has more robust lettering, deeper relief and chunkier details in the suspension device. This other variant also has the artist's name inscribed in Lafayette's shoulder, where the finer variant has none.
The second design also has Washington and Lafayette, but has the pair facing right, Washington in front. The second design's reverse has a stylized sunburst below the inscription text. It has the deeper relief and chunkier details, similar to the variant of the first design.

The Somme Medal -- The Somme Medal was issued by the "Ceux de la Somme" veterans' association.

- Special thanks to Hendrik Meersschaert, Arnaud Leclere, Anders Vidstrup and Jani Tiainen for images of medals in their collections and for their help with the text on this page. Also Todd Stokes, Tony Stockham, Norberto Traub, Alain Gilles for their contributions.

If you have any images for medals cited here, but not shown, that you would be willing to share, please feel free to contact me: Micheal.