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The Waterloo Medal of 1816 : Considering Medals in War and Society

John is a historian and researcher interested in the relation between war and society.

Battle of Waterloo - June 1815

Battle of Waterloo - June 1815

The Awarding of Medals

In April 1816, ten months following the British victory at Waterloo, the London Gazette announced that a medal would be awarded to every soldier who had participated in the battle.[1] Military medals have been studied by military historians to highlight aspects of battles or military campaigns, but seldom have they been examined in the context of the social and political issues of the societies bestowing them.

The awarding and receiving of prizes and honours are politically and often emotionally charged affairs. Some recent political examples might include the “cash for honours” schemes in the House of Lords or the 2009 awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama, whilst the United States was still actively engaged in two ongoing wars.

Considering military medals, the U.S. military issued more than 1.25 million medals for bravery to military personnel in the Vietnam War. Compared to just 50,258 during the Korean War, it is estimated medals for bravery awarded in the Vietnam War exceeded the number of personnel who actually experienced combat, and the number of valour citations increased with the war’s growing unpopularity.[2] Reflecting on a medal received for his Vietnam War service, Colin Powell in his autobiography stated, “. . . it might have meant more to me in a war where medals were not distributed so indiscriminately.”[3]

The Waterloo Medal (Reverse)

The Waterloo Medal (Reverse)

The Waterloo Medal was struck in silver featuring an image of the Prince Regent on its front, and on the reverse, a winged victory figure with the inscriptions “Waterloo”, “June 18 1815”, and “Wellington”. A contemporary view of this medal is that of Sir Evelyn Webb-Carter, the Chairman of the “Waterloo 200” celebrations to be held in 2015:

“Wellington’s suggestion that all soldiers who took part in the battle should receive the same medal in the same metal, regardless of rank, was revolutionary and a clear recognition of the equal contribution made by all those who fought bravely in the Waterloo campaign, and reflects how deeply moved Wellington was by the courage of all those involved in Waterloo.”[4]

Precise motives for establishing this medal are likely to be more nuanced than this statement portrays. From a modern perspective, issuing the medal can be viewed as a benevolent gesture signalling universal recognition for the battle participants. If the Duke of Wellington was in fact the originator of this medal, whilst bearing in mind his well-published views on soldiers of the period, we might also conclude, as Nigel Sale has suggested in a very recent reappraisal of the battle of Waterloo, that the medal was another method to indelibly link his name to the great victory. [5] The medal would then further affirm the status of the army, perpetually in competition with the navy, looking to the post-war years of resolving national debts.

Napoleon, according to David Bell, understood the benefits of issuing medals to his soldiers for morale purposes, and so created the Legion d’Honneur which was issued primarily to his soldiers with pomp and theatre.[6] This was mimicked by the Prussians who instituted the Iron Cross, a medal likewise for bravery which was to be distributed and prized regardless of the recipient’s rank.[7]

Late Empire Légionnaire insignia: the front features Napoleon's profile and the rear, the imperial Eagle. An imperial crown joins the cross and the ribbon.

Late Empire Légionnaire insignia: the front features Napoleon's profile and the rear, the imperial Eagle. An imperial crown joins the cross and the ribbon.

No comparable medals were instituted by the British; such honours, as examined by Linda Colley, were the preserve of the elite as highly visible representations of their courage, fidelity, and service to the country.[8] While the Waterloo Medal was itself not a medal for the bravery it provided a level of status and recognition long-neglected within British society and affirmed an individual’s role, otherwise lost to history, in a significant event. Evidence exists from newspapers of the period that the Waterloo Medal, and later other medals like it, were prized and respected from their outset; an article in the Morning Post states that a Royal Marine would face trial for the theft of a Waterloo Medal from a Guardsman.[9]

Napoleon - Emperor of France painted by Jacques Louis David

Napoleon - Emperor of France painted by Jacques Louis David

Another Morning Post article cites disciplinary measures for a soldier following the apparent theft of his medal.[10] Later on, with the issuing of the Army General Service Medal of 1847, we see the increasing culture of medal proliferation becoming a subject for satire, as in a Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine article from 1849 from an “Old Peninsular” who receives his medal for service in Spain. He encounters his former officer at Horse Guards, known as a profligate malingerer in his young officer days, who likewise received his after much grumbling.[11] What we can conclude as a value judgement about these medals is that they are a tangible representation of an individual’s service and contribution, and can be of service to historians as a resource in examining the interaction between war and society.

Key audiences witnessing the distribution of this medal were the army and navy, as well as other Napoleonic War veterans who received the news with great uproar. Army veterans of the Peninsular War, as described in one such Times article from 1840, complained their efforts in a comparably longer campaign of several years had gone unrecognized, while the navy had yet to issue any medal to its ranks for its late victories.[12]

The 1847 Military General Service Medal - Five bar medal awarded to Richard Butler, 13th Light Dragoons

The 1847 Military General Service Medal - Five bar medal awarded to Richard Butler, 13th Light Dragoons

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Inter-service rivalry between the army and the navy raged in Parliament in the post-war era, and the politics of memory were played out in debates on the proper methods to commemorate Trafalgar and Waterloo, as well as the roles these services had played in bringing victory and security to the nation.[13]

After extensive debates in Parliament, the London Gazette announced in 1847 a medal for military service to be awarded retroactively to all ranks of the army and navy for war service between 1793 and 1815. Finally, it seemed that all veterans of these wars had received recognition.[14]

Historians, such as the previously cited David Bell, have contributed extensively to the historiography of the Napoleonic era and of post-Napoleonic Europe, but have had limited engagement with medals as a means of contributing to its analysis. Nicholas Rodger in a review of naval historiography following the bicentennial of the battle of Trafalgar cited some contributions to social history and naval culture but suggested there is more work in this field.[15]

Naval General Service Medal 1847 - Medal awarded to Corporal Henry Castle, Royal Marines, with clasps ‘Trafalgar’ (HMS Britannia) and 'Java' (HMS Hussar)

Naval General Service Medal 1847 - Medal awarded to Corporal Henry Castle, Royal Marines, with clasps ‘Trafalgar’ (HMS Britannia) and 'Java' (HMS Hussar)

Rodger in his own work briefly cites an episode in the issuing of the Naval General Service Medal of 1848 which caused a boost in the morale of old sailors. At this time, several women approached the Admiralty seeking claims for the medal citing their own service at sea and recognition for their roles in actions on fighting ships; the Admiralty refused any medals for women, not wishing to set a precedent. [16] Rodger fails to expand much further not only on what these medals meant to the sailors but also on the subject of women at sea. Putting this medal in such a context offers historians a tantalizing opportunity to examine gender in the historiography of naval warfare of the Napoleonic era.

Viewed in the contexts here described, medals can provide historians valuable insights into the soldiers, sailors, and society of these eras. What these medals meant to the recipients, what their bestowers sought to gain, and how the various audiences reacted can reveal further debates and insights into our understanding of the times they lived in.

Seldom have these objects been examined by historians as to how they can relate to larger social and even political issues in a given society. When considered in this context, medals such as the Waterloo Medal are not merely representations of a battle or campaign; they are a reflection of a culture and society.


[1] The London Gazette, “Memorandum, Horse Guards, March 10, 1816”, April 23, 1816. Issue 17130. 749.

[2] Gerard J. DeGroot, “A Grunt’s Life” from Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War, ed. by Robert J. McMahon, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008 (Fourth Edition)). 270.

[3] Colin Powell with Joseph E. Persico, My American Journey, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995). 141.

[4] Jamie Doward, “Medals reissued for Waterloo anniversary”, The Observer, January 3, 2015, accessed January 26, 2015,

[5] Nigel Sale, The Lie at the Heart of Waterloo: The Battle’s Hidden Last Half Hour. (Stroud: The History Press, 2014), 226-228.

[6] David A. Bell, The First Total War (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007), 244.

[7] Karen Hagemann, “German Heroes: The Cult of the Death for the Fatherland in nineteenth-century Germany” in Masculinities in Politics and War: Gendering Modern History, ed. by Stefan Dudinket al. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004): 118-119.

[8] Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009 [first published 1992]), 186-190.

[9] The Morning Post, Saturday, June 8, 1816. Issue 14161.

[10] The Morning Post, Monday, June 3, 1816. Issue 14156.

[11] Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, “My Peninsular Medal: by an Old Peninsular”, November 1849, 66, 409. 539. – Soldiers of the Peninsular War in Spain who vociferously sought recognition for their wartime service prior to the issuing of the 1847 Military General Service Medal were known and referred to as the “Grumblers”.

[12] The Times, “History Of Medals, Chains, Clasps, And Crosses, Conferred In Reward Of Military Or Naval Services”, December 21, 1840, Issue 17546. 5.

[13] Papers on Monument to the Battle of Trafalgar, Hansard, 1st Series, Volume 32, cols. 311-326.

[14] The London Gazette, “General Order, Horse Guards 1st of June 1847”, June 1, Issue 20740. 2043.

[15] N.A.M. Rodger, “Recent Work in British Naval History, 1750-1815”, The Historical Journal, 51, No. 3 (September, 2008): 748-749.

[16] N.A.M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean, (London: Penguin Books, 2004) 506.

© 2019 John Bolt

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