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100 Years Ago: December 1919

This is the fifty-ninth installment in my series of reviews of National Geographic magazines as they reach their centennial of being issued.

The first article in this month’s issue is entitled “The Romance of Military Insignia” and was written by Col. Robert E Wyllie, General Staff, U. S. Army. It has the subtitle “How the United States Government Recognizes Deeds of Heroism and Devotion to Duty”. The article contains twenty-seven black-and-white photographs, eight of which are full-page in size. This article serves as an introduction to the second item listed on the cover, another entry into National Geographic’s series of field guides with color plates specially made for them.

Colonel Wyllie began his essay with a history of medals. The origin of medals and similar decorations date back to antiquity. The first written record of such items comes from the first century A.D., when a Chinese emperor gave medals to his military commanders. In the Middle Ages, knights of several orders wore insignia denoting the orders to which they belonged. Our modern system of awarding medals goes back to Elizabethan times in England. In 1588 Queen Elizabeth issue a medal commonly known as the “Ark in Flood” due to the reverse which showed an ark floating on the waves. It was a naval medal, probably for the destruction of the Spanish Armada. Two other medals were struck at the same time commemorating the victory over Spain, but there is no record of the recipients of these three awards. James I awarded a medal to his naval commanders and Charles I had several struck as rewards for his followers.

In 1650, the first recorded medal was produced and awarded to officer and enlisted men alike. Until that time medals were awarded to higher commanders. After the battle of Dunbar, in that year, Cromwell defeated a Royalist uprising in Scotland. Parliament voted to give medals to all its troops engaged in the battle. The officers were given small gold medals while the men were given larger, silver medals. Several naval medals were given during the commonwealth and the reign of Charles II for victories over the Dutch. It wasn’t until 1692, during the time of William and Mary, that the Dunbar precedent was followed with medals awarded for the naval victory over the French at La Hogue. The old idea of medals for commanders only persisted until the late 1700s. In 1773 the entire militia were awarded medals for defeating the Carib Indians, and in 1784 the East India Company, under charter to rule India for Britain, awarded medals to all who took part in the war against Hyder Ali in the Deccan followed in 1792 by a similar award for all in the campaign against Tippoo Sahib in Mysore. In England the practice of awarding medals to officers only continued to 1810 with the Peninsula gold medal for victories in Spain.

The Peninsula medal established a precedent that was adopted by the United States; the system of clasps. A medal was given for each battle with the name of the battle on the reverse. Some officers had so many medals that, in 1813, it was decided that only one would be worn, with a bar on the ribbon for each additional battle. A maximum of two bars were allowed and, along with the medal itself, represented three battles. If an officer had a fourth battle under his belt, the medal and bars were replaced by a cross with each arm representing one battle. Bars again could be added to represent more battles.

While the East India Company continued to award medals to officers and men alike, it wasn’t until Waterloo that the British government returned to the Dunbar precedent. In 1816, the Waterloo Medal was conferred upon all officers and soldiers present at the battle. In later years the British authorized medals to be given to soldiers for prior campaigns including the Peninsula Medal, and for battles in Egypt and the West Indies. This was done in 1848 and the survivors were not very numerous.

As with the British, the first medals awarded by the United Stated were given to officers. The very first was awarded to General Washington in 1776 for the evacuation of Boston by the British. Captain John Paul Jones was similarly rewarded for his fight with the Serapis in 1779. Several gold medals were awarded to commanders for battles in the War of 1812. Generals Scott and Taylor were given gold medals for victories in the Mexican War, and General Grant was given a similar award for the ictory at Chattanooga in 1863.

In 1847, during the Mexican War, Congress authorized the President to present a certificate to enlisted men who distinguished themselves. No medal or decoration accompanied this award. It wasn’t until 1905 that a badge was authorized to show that the wearer had received the Certificate of Merit. So, in the early days it was in no sense a decoration.

In 1861 the United States established the Medal of Honor for enlisted men. For forty years it was the sole American military decoration; the life-saving medals authorized in 1874 not being military in nature. In the author’s time there were sixteen medals in the Army and many more in the Navy; what a difference a few years make.

It was the Spanish American War that brought about the expansion of our system of decoration. There were four medals awarded after that war. One, for the participants of the Battle of Manila Bay, is commonly called the Dewey Medal. Another commemorates the naval engagements in the West Indies. A third was for meritorious or hazardous service other than in battle. The last was for the members of the Army in the Philippines who volunteered to stay in service there after the war for holding the islands against an insurrection until relieved by other troops.

In January 1905 the War Department established the principle of recognizing service in wars and campaigns by issuing a distinctive medal to all officers and men who participated. By the time of our entry into the war with Germany it had become apparent that a new medal was needed to reward men for acts of bravery that does not rise to the level of deserving the Medal of Honor. This new junior reward was established for the Army in January 1918, with the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism, and the Distinguished Service Medal for meritorious service in a position of great responsibility. In February 1919 corresponding decorations were adopted by the Navy.

To reward all who served in the military during the war, no matter if they saw action or not, the Victory Medal was authorized. At the time of the article it had been designed but not awarded. Because of this fact, a color image of it does not appear in the field guide; a descriptive entry of it does appear however. A black-and-white image of both sides of the medal appears on page 464.

Col. Wyllie then shifts the article from the history of military decorations to the definitions of decorations, medals, and badges. A decoration is an ornament of honor bestowed for some individual act or service. This differs from a service medal which is awarded to all participants to commemorate some war, campaign, or other historical event. A badge is given to show excellence or qualification in small arms, swordsmanship, aviation, etc. From these definitions it can be seen that a decoration is the highest distinction followed by medals and badges in that order.

While some medals are in the form of stars or crosses, most are circular in shape thus making them almost indistinguishable without close inspection. To solve this problem, each medal is suspended by a distinctive ribbon, an integral part of the ornament. Ribbons are not used with badges which are either in a shape that makes them easily recognizable or have a plain and legible inscription indicating the exact purpose of the badge. The insignia of military and other societies, while not official, are known by the War Department as miscellaneous badges and as such are controlled by the same rules of custom which govern the wearing of any decoration.

Military men wear medals and decorations only on full dress occasions. A soldier is limited to wearing only those awarded him by his own, an equal, or a superior government. As an example, a U. S. Army soldier can only wear decorations awarded by the federal government and not those from a state, municipality, or society. However, he may wear those awarded him from a coordinated foreign government. A state officer, may wear medals presented him by his or any other state as well as those awarded by the federal government, but not municipal decorations or society badges.

Medals and decorations are rarely worn and should be limited to those that are strictly appropriate to the occasion. In ordinary times, military men wear small sections of ribbon on their uniforms as a substitute for their medals. The same rules apply to these service ribbons. Lapel buttons are used with civilian clothes for the same purpose. On evening clothes, miniatures can be worn when the occasion is appropriate. These are one-half scale replicas of the full-size medals and ribbons. These are more dressy than the service ribbons but not so ceremonial as the full-size medals. This means that even though medals are rarely worn, the possessor can always show the fact that he possessed one, either in uniform or civilian clothes, by wearing the proper substitute.

A person can be awarded only one decoration. If he accomplishes a second such feat, something is added to denote that feat. Since they can possess and wear only one decoration, and a decoration can only be worn by the person to which it had been awarded, there has been only one person who has ever worn two. Lord Roberts was presented with his son’s Victoria Cross which was awarded posthumously for action in the Boer War. Lord Robert was given special permission to wear it. Since he had already been awarded his own for action in India, on special occasions he could sport two. In the United States, no one has received two Medals of Honor, two Distinguished Service Crosses, or two Distinguished Service Medals. Likewise, in France no one has been awarded two Croix de Guerre, etc.

A citation is an official announcement of appreciation for services performed. It may be in the form of an order issued from headquarters, or in official report, or as a special certificate. A citation does not of itself carry any further reward. If a decoration is to be given it is customary to include that fact in the citation. Since there may be a request for a reward in one citation and the approval of that reward in another citation, there may be two or three citations for the same act. A citation which bestows a decoration is an award. When a decoration is physically received it is called a presentation.

The word “bar” in connection with medals refers to a small piece of metal to which the top of the suspending ribbon is fastened. Sometimes it is covered by the ribbon; sometimes the ribbon is fastened to the back leaving the bar visible. It is provided with a pin at the back for attachment to the coat. Clasps are sometimes called bars. Service ribbons can be either sewn on the coat or placed on the bar, covering the bar completely. It is incorrect to speak of the service ribbons themselves as bars.

Medals and decorations are worn on the left breast and in a carefully arranged order of precedence. The place of honor is to the right of the wearer, or nearest to the center line of the breast. The highest decoration is worn in that position. Others follow in the correct order of precedence, and then service medals according to date of the service rendered. Any foreign decorations come after American medals and are in order of date awarded to avoid embarrassments and complications.

In nearly all countries, decorations for distinguished service take precedence over those awarded for acts of valor. The exceptions to this rule are Great Britain and the United States, where the primary valor decoration takes precedence over all others. These decorations are the Victoria Cross and the Medal of Honor respectively. Awards of these two medals are so rare and so jealously guarded that they are undoubtedly the two highest honors which can be bestowed for valor.

The Medal of Honor (MOH) was instituted in 1861 but applied only to enlisted men of the Navy. The next year enlisted men of the Army where added. On March 3, 1863, a provision was added to include Army officers. Naval officers were not eligible for this decoration until 1915. The conditions for earning this decoration have been made more stringent over the years. The application of these conditions placed the Medal of Honor upon the high plain which it enjoys today.

The author then gives examples of two citations awarding the Medal of Honor. The first went to Maj. Charles W. Whittlesey for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy northeast of Binarville, in the forest D’Argonne, France, October 2-7, 1918. The second went to Corpl, Alvin C. York for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy near Chatel-Chehery, France, October 8, 1918.

The Distinguished Service Medal was established by an act of Congress in February, 1919. It can be awarded to any person who, while serving in any capacity with the Army of the United States, shall distinguish himself or herself by special meritorious service to the government in a duty of great responsibility. This medal can be awarded to civilians. The key words are: duty of great responsibility. It is not combat related, per se, as long as the duty was important to the war effort. It is no surprise that the first eight recipients of the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) were Generals and only one, Gen. Pershing, served overseas. On July 9, 1919, it was awarded posthumously to a woman, Miss Jane A. Delano, for service as director of the Department of Nursing, American Red Cross.

The Distinguished Service Cross is purely an Army decoration and is bestowed as an award for individual acts of extraordinary heroism not warranting the award of the Medal of Honor. Several bronze oak-leaf clusters have been awarded in lieu of a second award. One airman, Frank O’D. Hunter, was awarded four oak-leaf clusters on his Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). Captain Eddie Rickenbacker was also awarded an oak-leaf cluster for his DSC. The DSC can also be awarded to women. Beatrice MacDonald, reserve nurse, Army Nurse Corps, lost an eye from a German bomb while treating wounded soldiers. The Navy Cross is different from the Army DSC, since it is a junior award for both the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Medal.

The Certificate of Merit is our oldest reward for meritorious service. It is a certificate signed by the President, issued to enlisted men only. It was not a decoration until 1905, when a medal was designed to be worn by the holder of the certificate to indicate possession of it. The certificate is the reward while the medal is only the visible evidence thereof. In July 1918, Congress abolished the Certificate of Merit, and directed all holders to exchange it for a Distinguished Service Medal.

Every officer and enlisted man who is cited in orders for gallantry in action, under conditions not warranting the award of a higher decoration, is entitled to wear a silver star, 3/16 inch in diameter, on the ribbon of the medal for the campaign in which the citation was given, and on the corresponding service ribbon. The citation must be in orders issued from headquarters commanded by a general; it must be for gallantry in action; and it cannot be worn if a MOH, DSM, or DSC was awarded for the same action. No specific award of the star is made. The order citing the individual is itself the award and constitutes all the authority needed for wearing the star, provided the three request conditions are met.

During the spring of 1918, while hostilities were still at their height, the different allied and associated nations agreed to adopt a medal which would be the same for all, to commemorate the great war. An interallied commission met in Paris after the armistice. They found it impractical to have one medal for all countries. While the medals for each country will vary the ribbons from which they are suspended would be identical. It was agreed the name of the medal would be the Victory Medal for all countries and would list all the countries that provided troops and/or ships for the hostilities on the reverse side.

In the summer of 1918, the War Department received a communication from the commanding general, Port of Embarkation, Hoboken, reporting that all members of the Eighty-first Division on their way to France were wearing a “wildcat” in cloth on their arm, and requested information about it. By the time word came back that these badges were not authorized, the troops had already departed. Once in France the existence of this device was reported to General Headquarters and the Commanding General was directed to remove the insignia. He protested, saying that by its silence the War Department had tacitly authorized it; that it was desirable in order that officers might readily know their troops; and it was highly prized and improved morale.

The General Headquarters had been studying ways to identify units in battle. The ‘wildcat” of the Eighty-first Division offered a solution. As a result, it was authorized and the commanding generals of all the combat divisions were directed to select insignia for their divisions. This was later extended to noncombat units for the morale the insignia instilled.

The second item listed on the cover is entitled “American Decorations and Insignia of Honor and Service”. It has no byline. It is a field guide for all medals and arm patches used by the U. S. military at the end of World War I. The guide is comprised of 120 descriptions (119 are numbered) each containing the purpose and history of the item. It has eight pages containing 119 numbered images in full color. The numbers of the descriptions and the images correspond but the guide has no index, unlike most of the Geographic’s other field guides. The first thirty-eight descriptions (and the first four pages of images) are for decorations and medals for the Army and Navy. The next description is unnumbered and is for the Victory Medal which was imaged in the first article. The remaining descriptions and pages of images are for organization shoulder insignia, or arm patches.

There are also five black-and-white aerial photographs of men in uniform massed and arranged to form various patriotic symbols. Three of these photos are full-page in size. The symbols that are represented include a United States Shield, the Marine Corps Emblem, the Statue of Liberty, the Insignia of the Eleventh Division, and an American Eagle.

There are two items appearing on the last page of the guide worth noting. The first is an undocumented black-and-white image. It is not counted in the “124 Illustration” listed on the cover (119+5). It is an image of the Insignia of the Siberian A. E. F. The caption serves as the description for this arm patch whose image “reached America too late for reproduction in color”.

At the bottom of the last page of the guide is an addendum formatted like an announcement advertising a new book or an index. Its title reads: “A Sequel to the Flag Book”. It simply promotes this field guide as a sequel or supplement to “Flags of World” in the October 1917 issue of National Geographic and later a book. Both articles used the same artists and printing method.

The next article in this issue is entitled “Celebrating Christmas on the Meuse” and was written by Captain Clifton Lisle, Headquarters 158 Infantry Brigade, A. E. F. The article contains five black-and-white photographs, three of which are full-page.

Captain Lisle recounted his experiences on Christmas Day, 1918, as he and his men held their position on the line in France a month and a half after hostilities had ceased. His men made the most of their first holiday season. The day began for the author when he awoke to find a real Christmas tree beside his chicken wire bed. One of the men had made the whole thing in secret and placed it beside the Captain’s bunk as he slept. The base was a canon shell on a carved wooden stand. The tree was decorated with silver balls made from tinfoil from chocolate bars. The gold trimming had been “salvaged” from a broken German field radio. Little beads from German grenade handles, red pods, and wild rose berries completed the spruce’s decoration.

A fine gray mist covered the plain north of Verdun. This ruined battle area was wet and muddy. As the sun rose higher, the mist grew thin, and the author could see from his vantage point church towers in the nearby villages. As the mist drifted away, the full horror of the destroyed hamlets could be seen. Great shell holes filled with stagnant water, some of them 20 feet across, were observed by the dozens. Everywhere laid the waste and wreckage of war.

The Captain and his orderly rode horses down the road that ran from Damvillers to Peuvillers. The horses splashed deep in mud and water. They had left the Brigade and headed for a church in Peuvillers where the men of the Third Battalion held an early carol service. By 6:30 in the morning the church was filled. There was a great hole high on the eastern wall from an artillery shell. The stained glass had been shattered; bits strewn everywhere. The men had decorated the church with holly, cedar, spruce, ivy, and mistletoe. Everywhere there was Christmas green. The service was short, just the singing of a few old carols and then a celebration of Holy Communion.

By noon the sunshine had returned to the usual drizzle of northern France. While the fields were totally impassible, the mud on the roads was only about three inches deep. The plans for Christmas Day called for field sports. Because the fields were unusable, the men fell back to using the road for the events. The 100-yard dash, the two-twenty, the broad jump, the high jump, potato race, sack race, three-legged race, signal relay, and wrestling were all enjoyed. The deeper the mud, the higher ran the rivalry. All afternoon in mist and driving rain, the men competed while others cheered and spirits were lifted. The last two events were a pie-eating contest and a tug o’ war.

The men had begun to plan for Christmas in advance and its crowning feature was to be the dinner. There were two requisites – something to eat and a place to eat it in. The men started the mess hall with a shack with a leaky, sagging roof and one good wall with a glassless window. They rebuilt the roof, replacing boards and covering it with an old carpet. The walls were easy with lumber available at a captured dump. They had lugged in greens and decorated the mess hall much like the church in Peuvillers. Tables and German trench stoves were placed in each corner for warmth. Tara, a war-scarred piano that look more like a harp, was the pride of the mess hall.

The problem of food was harder. A Brigade fund had been started for the meal but having it shipped by rail was impossible. They could barely get the necessities of life. They decide to send their little Ford truck across France from Verdun to Paris through shell-torn forests and ruined hills. Their Christmas dinner far surpassed anything they had dreamt of: real American turkey, mashed potatoes, tomatoes, stewed corn, celery, and apple pie. Cigars and cigarettes had reached them from the “Y” along with a fine supply of candy.

Since September, day after day, in constant rain, the men stood in line waiting for each meal. They ate standing in the rain or in whatever shelter they could find. Now they were sitting at a table in a warm room with real food and not the usual bully-beef and potatoes. After the feast the piano was played and songs were sung. Like everything else, Christmas came to an end. The mess hall was deserted, the piano lay silent, and the trench stoves smoldered out. Orders had come in and two days later they marched away. Captain Lisle never saw Reville again but he would always remember the Christmas Day he spent there.

The last article in this month’s issue is entitled “The Camel of the Frozen Desert” and written by Carl J. Lomen. The article contains nineteen black-and-white photographs by Lomen Brothers, Nome, Alaska. Nine of those photographs are full-page in size. The article documents the birth and development of reindeer raising as an industry in Alaska.

While the camel provided transportation, milk, clothing and meat in desert climes, the reindeer serves much the same purpose in the Arctic wilderness. Mr. Lomen starts with the effort of transplanting the animal to Alaska where it served as ox, sheep, and horse in one. In Europe and Asia, the reindeer was domesticated in prehistoric times. Not so in America, where the wild deer of that family were called caribou to distinguish them from their domesticated brethren.

The first importation of 162 reindeer landed at Teller, Alaska, July 4, 1892. In the decade that followed, 1,118 more were imported from Siberia. From the onset the deer thrived. As their numbers increased, other herds were formed from the mother herd in Teller. At the time the article was written, there were more than a hundred herds, with about 160,000 deer. During that time, it was estimated that 100,000 had been killed for food and skin. This means in thirty years the reindeer had multiplied more than two hundred-fold. The female deer usually had only one fawn a year but since the fawns were remarkable hardy and yearlings could reproduce, the rapid increase could be understood.

The reindeer was aptly named. It pastured during the summer on moss, lichen, mushrooms, algae, and grasses. They were native to Lapland and in the Lapp tongue the word “reino” means pasturage. During the winter the deer subsisted entirely on moss which abounded on the vast tundra of Alaska. The deerman had almost unlimited grazing land for his herd. It was estimated that there was 200,000 square miles of this dry, coral-like moss in Alaska. That was enough to support 10,000,000 deer. There was only one drawback to that calculation: reindeer migrated to the coast in the summer, to escape swarms of mosquitoes and to lick up salt deposits. The author speculated that if enough salt could be supplied inland and the deer “persuaded” to be taken to the breezier hills, they would overcome their inbred instinct to head to the seaside.

The Lapps who were brought from Norway as herders, and their understudies, the Eskimos, did not drive, but led or followed the herd. The reindeer selected their own mossy pasture and went unerringly to the coast in summer.

The reindeer constitutes the genus rangifer. It differs from other deer in that both sexes have antlers, which are shed annually. The antlers on the female remain much later in the Spring to allow them to defend the best feeding grounds for their young. The antlers are not used for scraping away snow, they do that with their hooves. While in motion the herd makes a crackling sound like an approaching hail storm. Unlike most animals, the reindeer prefer to travel against the wind. The herders are so sure of this instinct that, when a blizzard approaches, they can take cabin shelter and when the storm has passed, calculate the approximate location of the herd.

The warble fly was the dreaded pest of the reindeer. It laid its eggs on the fetlock of the deer. When the deer licked them off, the eggs were lodged in the animal’s mouth and throat. The eggs hatched into worms which worked their way up the neck and down the back under the skin, making life miserable. Finally, they bored through the hide and became flies. They reduced the deer’s vitality and, by piercing the skin to escape, lessened the market value of the hides.

The Eskimo made parkas from reindeer hide, sewing them with thread made from reindeer sinew. In northern Europe reindeer gloves were highly prized due to their warmth and because moisture did not injure them. Eskimos did not make gloves but they did make mittens and a warm boot called a mukluk. Girls used their teeth to crimp the boots into shape.

The Bureau of Education, acting under the Department of the Interior, first introduced the reindeer into Alaska, not as a livestock proposition, but primarily to assist the Eskimo. The Eskimo, like the Indian, was a ward of the Interior Department. At the time of the article, Eskimos owned 70 percent of all the deer in Alaska. The Bureau of Education received only $5,000 annually to care for this industry. Considering the big returns so far, it was recommended the Congress double that amount.

When the white man began to hunt whale, walrus, and seal in the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean, he became a competitor of the Eskimo. This put the Eskimo at a hopeless disadvantage. Fortunately, the government awoke to the need to provide the Eskimo an alternate livelihood. Dr. Sheldon Jackson realized the possibilities of the reindeer industry for that purpose. The first reindeer brought to Alaska were purchased with private funds raised by him. In 1892, the government appropriated $6,000, the first in a series of annual appropriations to continue the importation. The Bureau of Education fostered the reindeer industry as a means of vocational education for 20,000 Eskimos who otherwise would have to be supported or left to starve.

The meat of the deer was not “gamy” in flavor. It had been described as having a flavor between beef and mutton. The animal was butchered by modern methods and shipped frozen to distribution points in the States. Female deer were rarely killed. A certain number of males were set aside for breeding and the rest were fattened as steers. The average life of a deer was around 15 years, but steers were butchered when three years old.

Most reindeer were dark brown in color, but the herds contained some spotted and white animals. There was an experiment planned to introduce caribou blood into the herds, in the hopes that a larger animal will be produced and the stock improved. For long-distance travel the Eskimos preferred reindeer to dogs. The burden carried on a sled by a single deer should not exceed 200 pounds. For short distances a deer can outrun a dog or a horse. The usual rate of travel was from 25 to 35 miles a day. A deer could only be employed in this fashion for from 15 to 17 days. When travelling it had no chance to graze. When compelled to do so at night, it loses sleep. Consequently, the store of fat which encases the body is used up and its strength becomes exhausted. The Eskimo never prods the animal after it indicates its desire to quit the journey. He leaves it to find its way back to the herd or join another herd. The ownership of reindeer was indicated by ear-marks, and annually there is a general reassignment of animals to their owners.

Note: I believe this is the first (but by far not the last) appearance of Santa Claus on the back cover of a December National Geographic magazine.

Tom Wilson

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