Gallantry medals and other awards are comparative rarities and they are well documented. If the soldier you are researching won such an award, your chances of finding something about his service from the announcements are very good.
Sources of information
The award of gallantry medals was always notified in the London Gazette. This is now online and searchable, although it is not easy to achieve a high "hit rate". All I can say is - persist. If a name search does not work, try his number, regiment, home town, or a combination of these things. If he won such an award, he is there somewhere.
The London Gazette is the official newspaper of the State, which has existed since 1665 and is still published today. An invaluable resource for WW1 researchers, as it carried information concerning officer's commissions, honours and awards, Commanding Officers despatches and much more. An extensive index to the Gazette, as well as microfilmed copies of each publication, can be found at the National Archives.
There are also some indexes to these awards, held on microfiche at the National Archives.
The gallantry awards were often recorded in the man's unit war diary.
Local newspapers carried stories of men receiving everything from the MM upwards. Post-war, many books were published that gave whole lists of men who had received such honours. Modern researchers have added to the list in their great work on, for example, the Pals battalions - but overall the coverage is still only for a relatively few units.
A general note
While many gallantry awards were made to recognise a specific act and were granted as an "immediate" award, large numbers were granted in the New Year's Honours and King's Birthday Honours lists. These awards tended to be in recognition of a period of sustained gallant performance rather than a single act, and many went to those men who were not in a position to carry out spectacular acts - the unsung men of the transport, artillery, medical and veterinary services, ordnance and engineering, for example. The New Year's Honours were listed on 31 December or 1 January, and the King's Birthday Honours at 3 June each year. Those gazetted on 3 June 1919 are said to have been in the "Peace Gazette", as this issue approximately coincided with the conclusion of the Peace Conference at Versailles.
These are the British gallantry awards, in increasing seniority:
The Mention in Despatches
This is the lowest form of recognition that was announced in the London Gazette. The Commanders-in-Chief of each theatre of war infrequently submitted a despatch to the War Office, outlining the events since the previous despatch and listing those men who had been nominated as worthy of a mention.
Originally there was no award as such, the literal mention of the individual in the despatch being deemed sufficient. However, it was decided during the Great War that an oak leaf emblem could be worn with the ribbon of the Victory Medal, denoting the mention.
The mentioned man also received a certificate carrying his service details and a reference to the despatch in which he was mentioned. No complete index or register of those who were mentioned exists, although the National Archives has a partial list. All are listed in the London Gazette. The mention did not entitle the man to use the letters MID after his name for official purposes, although this form is seen from time to time.
The Meritorious Service Medal
This award was originally for long service or acts of particular merit; from 1916 it was also for gallantry or meritorious service when not in face of the enemy. The latter awards ("Immediate MSM's") were announced in the London Gazette. The recipient was allowed to use the letters MSM after their name.
The Military Medal
First instituted in March 1916 as an award for distinguished service in the field for Warrant Officers, NCO's and lower ranks. The award of an MM was also possible for women. All awards of the MM were announced in the London Gazette, with no citation. No citations or receommandations now exist. When you find the listing in the London Gazette, note the date of publication. The event for which the award was made was usually some 3-4 months before. MM awards are often mentioned in war diaries. The recipient was allowed to use the initials MM after their name.
The Distinguished Conduct Medal
First instituted in 1854 as an award for distinguished service in the field for Warrant Officers, NCO's and lower ranks. All awards of the DCM were announced in the London Gazette, usually with a citation although awards made as part of the King's Birthday or New Year's honours do not always have one. A very detailed reference is "Recipients of the Distinguished Conduct Medal 1914-1920" by R. W. Walker, published 1980. A veterans group, called the DCM League, existed after the war. The recipient was allowed to use the initials DCM after their name.
The Military Cross
First instituted on 28 December 1914 as an award for gallantry or meritorious service for officers with the rank of Captain and below, and for Warrant Officers (that is, NCO's with warrant - at the time, this was only a Regimental Sergeant-Major). In August 1916 it became possible to award a bar or bars to the MC, for repeated acts of gallantry. A rosette worn with the medal ribbon denoted the bar. All awards of the MC were announced in the London Gazette, usually with a citation, although awards made as part of the King's Birthday or New Year's honours were made for reasons of meritorious service and do not usually have a citation. 37,081 MC's were awarded in the war. In addition 2,992* men were awarded a bar to the MC (that is, they won the MC again); 176 a second bar and 4 men a third bar. The recipient was allowed to use the initials MC after their name.
* Data differs according to source: 2,992 according to J.V.Webb's "Recipients of bars to the Military Cross"; 2,983 according to Abbott & Tamplin's "British Gallantry Awards".
The Distinguished Service Order
A high award for meritorious or distinguished service rather than an act of gallantry, although in many cases during 1914-1918 it is not easy to discriminate between these two reasons for granting an award; in fact in some cases it appears that a DSO was awarded when perhaps a full recommendation for a VC could not be justified or corroborated. In existence since 1886, for officers who were not eligible for an award of the CB (Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath): however, after the establishment of the award of the Military Cross, it was unusual for a DSO to be awarded to an officer with a rank below Major. All awards of the DSO were announced in the London Gazette, usually with a citation, although awards made as part of the King's Birthday or New Year's honours were made for reasons of meritorious service and do not usually have a citation. A very detailed reference book, detailing each award, is "The Distinguished Service Order" by General Sir O'Moore Creagh. The recipient was allowed to use the initials DSO after their name.
The Victoria Cross
The supreme British award for gallantry in the face of the enemy, which was established in 1856 and is still awarded today. 633 VC's were awarded during the war, of which only two only were bars (second awards to a man who already had a VC): they were to Arthur Martin-Leake (who won his first VC before the war) and Noel Chavasse (who won the award in 1916 and posthumously in 1917). Both were medical officers. Each award of the VC followed a regimental-level recommendation that had to be supported by three independent eye-witness accounts. The recommendation was escalated, with the final submission and approval being by the Secretary of State for War, and HM the King. The VC awards have been extensively researched and many publications cover the men and actions that led to the them. Perhaps the best modern volumes are the series edited (and in some cases written) by Gerald Gliddon, titled "VC's of the First World War". All awards of the VC were announced in the London Gazette, always with a citation. The recipient was allowed to use the initials VC after their name.
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