The Evolution of Army Medals: A Historical Overview

The Evolution of Army Medals: A Historical Overview

The Evolution of Army Medals: A Historical Overview

People who have demonstrated bravery, sacrifice, and remarkable service during times of battle have been honored with various types of acknowledgment ever since the beginning of human civilization. Particularly Army medals have been important in honoring and remembering the bravery and commitment of soldiers throughout history. This article's brief historical overview of the development of army medals shows their development from ancient to modern times.

Ancient Origins

Military rewards have a long history, dating back to Egypt, Rome, and ancient Greece. These societies honored military success by giving out honorifics and honors. 

Examples include:

  • The pharaonic decorations of ancient Egypt.
  • The corona civica of Rome.
  • The military crowns of ancient Greece.

These early forms of recognition symbolized courage, leadership, and loyalty, serving as forerunners to the army medals we know today.

Medieval Period and Orders of Gallantry

Orders of gallantry were established throughout Europe during the medieval period due to knighthood and chivalry emerging as important ideals. Examples include the Order of the Garter in England and the Order of the Golden Fleece in Burgundy, which recognized knights for their combat skills and adherence to a code of conduct. These orders incorporated decorations and symbols representing noble qualities and strength in battle.

Napoleonic Wars and Modern Military Decorations

An important turning point in the development of military honors occurred during the Napoleonic Wars in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This period witnessed the development of modern military decorations as we know them today. After realizing the importance of visual recognition, Napoleon Bonaparte founded the Legion of Honour to reward and motivate soldiers. The Legion of Honour became a template for subsequent military decorations awarded in several nations.

Industrial Revolution and the Standardization of Medals

With the start of the Industrial Revolution and the growth of modern militaries, there was a greater demand for standardized army awards. National military awards were established during this time, including the Victoria Cross in the United Kingdom and the Medal of Honour in the United States. These medals established the criteria for honoring bravery and selflessness on the battlefield.

World Wars and Modern Era

Two horrifying global wars in the 20th century resulted in significant advancements in military awards. Many nations created new medals to recognize the contributions of soldiers during World Wars I and II, such as the Croix de Guerre in France and the Iron Cross in Germany. Some conflicts also offered campaign medals and service ribbons to recognize military service beyond the call of duty.

How Designs and Criteria Have Changed Over Time

These prestigious awards represent the changing principles and ideals of the armed forces as symbols of recognition. The designs and requirements for army medals have undergone tremendous changes, reflecting changing perspectives, technological advances, and honoring various acts of bravery. 

The Birth of Decorations:

Army medals have a long history that dates back several centuries. The earliest military decorations were frequently simple marks of distinction or tokens worn by soldiers that highlighted their bravery and achievements. These early honors laid the foundation for developing modern army medals from the ancient Greeks and Romans to medieval knights.

Standardization and Expansion:

In the 19th century, we witnessed a significant shift in the design and criteria of army medals. Governments began to establish formalized systems to recognize military achievements, leading to the standardization of medal designs and the establishment of clear eligibility criteria. The concept of bravery became more structured, and medals such as the Victoria Cross (VC) in the United Kingdom and the Medal of Honor (MOH) in the United States emerged, honoring exceptional acts of bravery.

Symbolism and Materials:

Army medal designs have traditionally included symbolism in conveying the armed forces' values and beliefs. Early designs often included classical symbols like laurel garlands, swords, and shields. Using national emblems, eagles, stars, and other symbols of bravery, honor, and patriotism gradually gave way to more imagery. In addition, the materials used to make army medals changed with time, moving from simple metals like bronze and silver to complex mixtures of precious metals, enamel, and gemstones.

Recognition of Service:

As military operations became more complex, the recognition of meritorious service alongside acts of valor became paramount. Decorations like the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) and the Legion of Merit (LOM) were introduced to honor outstanding service and contributions beyond the call of duty. These awards recognized the diverse roles and responsibilities within the military, highlighting the dedication and commitment of soldiers in non-combat scenarios.

Adaptation to Modern Warfare:

The development of modern warfare brought new challenges and the requirement to recognize exceptional achievements on evolving battlefields. To reflect the evolving nature of warfare, awards like the Purple Heart, given for wounds received in battle, and the Air Medal, honoring aerial achievements, were created. Additionally, improvements in technology and design allowed medal designs to be more intricate and detailed, better expressing the essence of military accomplishments.

Inclusion and Diversity:

In recent years, a conscious effort has been made to ensure that army awards reflect the inclusivity and diversity of the armed services. Several countries have updated their criteria and designs to honor heroic actions and achievements. The scope of recognition has grown beyond the battlefield due to this growth, leading to the creation of medals that recognize bravery in humanitarian missions, peacekeeping operations, and other non-traditional military activities.


Army medals have evolved throughout history, reflecting changing social values and the ever-evolving nature of warfare. From ancient civilizations to the modern era, these medals have played an important role in recognizing and honoring soldiers' bravery, sacrifice, and dedication. Today, army medals symbolize bravery, representing the courage and selflessness that define military service.