When I was about eleven, I was an avid collector of coins, attracted by the romance of finding Victorian pennies, halfpennies and once, a silver Edwardian shilling in my change. A fondness for money itself may also have played a part. The announcement in 1966 of plans for decimalisation injected urgency into my hobby, and when I grew old enough to do a paper round, a large part of the proceeds went towards this solitary pastime.
Occasionally I bought a copy of Coins and Medals, before moving downmarket to the livelier upstart Coin Monthly. But it was probably as a reader of the former that I casually asked my father whether he had any medals from the war.
He replied that he had not, because he had never claimed them. Probably like many others, he had regarded these baubles as a poor reward for years of putting his life at risk in the service of His Majesty. But then he thought, why not? and decided to send off for them. Of course, he still remembered his Service Number. Before long, he had received – over twenty years after the war ended – four medals: the War Medal 1939-1945, the Defence Medal, the 1939-1945 Star, and specifically for his main theatre of service, the Burma Star.
I was impressed by the speed and efficiency with which they were delivered: less so by the medals themselves. “Silver” coins minted before 1947 still consisted of 50% actual silver. But the War Medal and the Defence Medal, although silver in colour, were made of cupro-nickel. More disappointingly, they carried no identification, suggesting medals stacked up in a warehouse, waiting to be claimed. There was nothing personal about them: I could not have expressed this at the time, but I was left with the impression that the government had regarded the recipients not as individuals but as a homogeneous, expendable mass.
My mother’s parents lived with us, and after my Dad’s medals arrived, my grandfather Jack Brockbank similarly decided to see if he could still claim his medals from the Great War – by now nearly fifty years previous.
To his surprise, after filling in a form, they arrived. He had been awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
I found these far more impressive. The British War Medal was struck in silver, and showed St George on horseback trampling a skull and cross-bones and a shield showing the Prussian eagle. The Victory Medal showed a winged figure of Victory, and was inscribed “The Great War For Civilisation 1914-1919”, dating the end of the war to the Treaty of Versailles. Perhaps from our perspective the Second World War more closely fits the description of a “war for civilisation”.
But it was the edge which fascinated me: both medals were inscribed “173612 DVR. J. BROCKBANK. RE.” Although the medal was still meagre recompense for the dangers he had faced, it was at least personal – something the recipient could be proud to own.
Relatively few of the British War Medals survive: when the Hunt brothers attempted to corner the silver market in 1979, the silver price went up eightfold, and their bullion value far exceeded their market value as medals: as a result, many were melted down.
In the 1920s the British War Medal and Victory Medal acquired the nickname Mutt and Jeff when worn together, inspired by the US newspaper comic strip. When accompanied by other commonly awarded medal, the 1914–15 Star (or the 1914 Star), the set of three were humorously known as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred, after three popular comic strip characters, a dog, a penguin and a rabbit.
My father and grandfather allowed me to be custodian of their medals, but as a collector, I didn’t want to leave it there. Some time around 1970 I bought a few of the other WW2 medals, where they were affordable from paper round pay.
I also acquired a 1914-15 Star, the one which Jack had not received. I noticed that it had an inscription on the back, but I didn’t pay it much attention, and my small medal collection spent half a century largely undisturbed on my bookshelf in its Coinval album. Just occasionally I’d glance at them, and feel gratitude, with a flicker of peacetime boomer guilt, that I’d never been called upon to fight in a war, as my grandfather and father were.
2022 began with a flurry of renewed work on my family tree, as the 1921 Census emerged. In the course of my researches, I read about a Facebook page called Medals Going Home, run by postman and genealogist Adam Simpson-York. He acquires named WW1 medals and other memorabilia on eBay, and reunites them with descendants or other family members. To do this he uses Ancestry.com to follow the family down to the present, and social media such as Facebook to locate living family members to receive the medal. His randomly scattered acts of altruism have been featured on the BBC’s One Show.
What a marvellous idea! To track down a missing medal belonging to a particular serviceman or woman is virtually impossible. But going the other way, pushing rather than pulling, as it were – starting from a named medal including a Service Number (especially one with a less common surname) – it is frequently possible to find their grandchildren, or great-nieces and great-nephews etc. And a medal which has been lost, forgotten, sold, stolen or cleared out of a house at some point over the last hundred years can again find a home where it is valued.
I remembered the 1914-15 Star I had bought, and went to look at it for the first time in years: it would mean so much more to the recipient’s family than to me.
Using the Ancestry website I started building W. B. Boast’s family tree. I soon established that his full name was William Benjamin Boast, born in Lambeth, London in 1887. He got through the war, married and had a couple of children, and lived until 1956 – so there could be some living descendants.
I also found his naval record, which tells us that he joined the Navy in 1903 when he was 16 years old, and lists the ships he crewed. The record also tells us that he was 5 foot 6, with auburn hair, hazel eyes and a fresh complexion, that he had a scar on his lower lip, two scars on his right hand, and tattoos of a girl’s head in a star on his right arm, and a sword on his left arm. It shows his progress from Boy, 2nd Class to Able Seaman in three years.
He served on HMS Malaya from January 1916 to April 1919, fighting at the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916. The Malaya was hit eight times and took major damage as it was last in line of the squadron of fast battleships which had to turn right round, one after the other, in the face of the full German line. A total of 65 men died in the battle, or later of their injuries, and the Malaya got home with a serious list.
W.B. Boast was invalided out in 1919 following the amputation of the third finger of his right hand. Back in civilian life in 1921, he worked as an electrical fitter in Willesden, London, and was still doing so in 1939.
But I was no nearer to finding the next generation down after his daughter and son. So I enlisted Adam’s help at Medals Going Home. Within 48 hours, he emailed me to say that he had found Able Seaman Boast’s granddaughter: he included her telephone number and said she would be expecting my call.
I called her, a lovely lady living in Great Yarmouth. She was only three when her grandfather died, so she didn’t remember him, but she knew that he had served in the Navy, and was very pleased to know that the medal would be on its way to her house. And that, I think, is where it belongs.