(Reprinted from Trendline Magazine, October 2000, updated April 2015)
As Americans distinguished themselves on the fields of battle of the First World War, many of our allies expressed the desire that the United States curtail its policy of not allowing its soldiers to accept awards from foreign nations without express permission of Congress. As a result, an act of Congress in February 1919 allowed the Allies to confer their awards for a period of one year after the end of the war, and that the President may likewise present decorations to the military and naval forces of our Allies.
The massive collective effort of the Allies in defeating Germany and the Central Powers made it difficult and confusing for nations to bestow their particular awards to all foreign personnel attached to them. It became clear that the Allies must adopt one medal to be awarded to all eligible. When an inter-allied commission met in Paris following the Armistice, they realized it would take too long to gather ideas on the design of this medal from all the Allied nations, and decided rather to adopt a specific ribbon and general set of specifications for each medal, and leave the details of each nation’s award to themselves. In the United States, a bill authorizing the medal did not pass, leaving it to be created by general orders.
The name of this award was to be the Victory Medal. Its ribbon was developed by the commission in France, and consisted of a double rainbow with red in the center, and white to each edge, symbolic of the dawn of peace following such a world-shattering conflagration. The specifications of the medal itself were beautifully simple. It should be a 36mm diameter bronze medallion suspended by a ring. A full face, full length winged Victory figure was to be the obverse design, while the reverse was to bear the inscription “The Great War for Civilization” in the native language of the issuing nation, along with the names or coat of arms of each Allied power, to be arranged in the order of their entry into the war: Serbia, Russia, France, Belgium, Great Britain, Montenegro, Japan, Italy, Portugal, Rumania, Greece, United States, China, and Brazil. The American Victory Medal was designed by J.E. Fraser by direction of the Commission of Fine Arts.
A system of British-style clasps further denoted combatants in specific battles from those stateside or otherwise disconnected from the fighting. Furthermore, small bronze stars were introduced to the service ribbon bar to indicate the wearer’s participation in any number of campaigns. Although the British had been using the clasp system for nearly one hundred years by that time, applying stars to the ribbon bar was an innovation for them as well.
Officers or enlisted men cited in orders for gallantry in action, and who have not been awarded a higher award for the same were entitled to wear a 3/16 inch silver citation star on the ribbon of their medal, as well as their ribbon bar. There were three conditions for these stars. First, the citation must have been issued in orders from either a headquarters or and Army General. Second, that is for gallantry, specifically; and third, it cannot be worn if a Medal of Honor or Distinguished Service Cross has already been issued for the same act.
Although the tone of the Victory Medal’s reverse inscription may sound a bit melodramatic to us a century later, it must be remembered that some indeed thought the First World War could bring about the end of civilization itself. One notable exception was the British author and journalist H.G. Wells who himself coined the phrase “the war that will end war” through the eponymous pamphlet. Wells saw the war as an opportunity for all mankind. He hoped it would awaken in the civilized world an all-consuming desire for a peaceful and cooperative post-war world; a social organization so dependent upon one another that it would make war itself impossible. Unfortunately he was to be terribly disappointed.