Military medals are puzzle piece of a life story
'People don't collect military medals," says Stuart Purcell, auctioneer. "They collect the people who were awarded the medals." Formerly head of Collectibles at Whyte's, Purcell has just launched a new Collectibles division at Mullen's in Bray, with the first Collector's Cabinet auction scheduled for November 23.
As the sale was in preparation, a man brought in a collection of military medals that he'd found when clearing out his aunt's house. They included the standard British campaign medals, awarded to all those who saw service in the First World War. The medals were the 1914 Star or 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal (respectively known as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred after a popular comic strip of the time). The vendor hoped to sell the medals, but had no notion of their history.
Uncovering the story behind medals is part of the fun. First World War campaign medals are relatively easy to trace because they are impressed with the recipient's service number, rank, name and unit. Pip (the Star) has the information on the reverse. Squeak and Wilfred have it on the rim. Key the information into a search engine, verbatim, and you enter world of carefully catalogued information about those who served in the First World War. "The medals offer you the thread that allows you to follow the story," Purcell explains.
In this case, all three medals (Lot 61: est €500 to €700) carried the name of Watson and were awarded to siblings: two brothers and a sister. The brothers fought in the Royal Sussex Regiment, the sister was a nurse. More digging revealed the PDF of a recent memorial service in the Watsons' local parish. Now, with full names and a birthplace, it was easier to find out about the family, the children of a well-to-do builder in Sussex.
It's a sad story. Sergeant Walter Benjamin Watson went to Gallipoli, was wounded at Suvla Bay, and died of his wounds a few weeks later. His brother, Samuel Meredith Watson, ended up in the machine gun corps and was killed on the first day of the Somme. Their sister, Sister Rebecca Tringham Watson, served in the territorial nursing service and survived the war.
A typical trio of First World War campaign medals is usually worth between €80 and €120. Officers' medals make a bit more, and senior officers' more again. Their value also increases if the recipient has a traceable name, or if they served in a collectible regiment.
Irish regiments like the Dublin Fusiliers, the Munster Fusiliers, or the Connaught Rangers (known as "The Devils Own") are particularly collectible. A trio of medals from any of these should fetch at least €200.
The same vendor, executor to his aunt, also brought in a Military Cross with a bar (Lot 60: est €800 to €1,200). During the First World War, this medal was only awarded to officers as a "decoration for gallantry during active operations in the presence of the enemy". It was not engraved, which makes it hard to trace the recipient. If anonymous, it's worth between €300 and €500.
The vendor had no clue of the history of the medal, but also came in with a large silver punchbowl presented to Robert Louden Brown, an RM in Co Roscommon. A clue!
An internet search brought up an article in the Dundalk Democrat that linked the name Louden Brown to a story about a war hero. It turned out that Louden Brown came from a Dundalk merchant family and had two sons. Both were awarded Military Crosses in the First World War, but only one had a bar. "The bar means that whatever you did to merit the Military Cross, you went back out and did it again," Purcell explains.
By process of elimination, the Military Cross must have been awarded to Captain Jack Carolan Brown, 4th Battalion, Connaught Rangers, who was seconded to the tank regiment. Jack Carolan Brown was either a war hero, completely mad, or both. He was crossing no man's land under enemy fire with a tank full of soldiers when the vehicle went on fire. Back then, tanks were petrol-fuelled, so this was a bit like being in a petrol tank that someone had dropped a match into.
Understandably, the crew jumped ship, but Brown stayed behind to put out the fire. Then everyone got back into the tank and went on to fight the Germans.
Next time round, Brown led his tanks across no man's land on foot because the visibility was so bad. He was killed in 1919, within three months of the armistice.
His brother also enlisted in the Connaught Rangers and survived the war to become a doctor. Having made it through the conflict, he died while hunting, accidentally shot by his own best friend.
Even sadder is the envelope addressed to a Mrs M Diver of Portaferry, Co Down. It contains three pristine ribbons and a letter informing her that her son is dead. He signed up under the name of Albert Wheeler, presumably because he was underage. Mrs Diver received and kept his medals (Lot 59: est €350 to €450) but never strung them on the ribbons. It's easy to imagine her grief as she shut the drawer on them.