One entire Greek generation of heroes may have been forgotten by us, but luckily not by the Hellenic Kingdom. They were recognized and bestowed with a special set of medals for their heroic actions. Most of us, including family and decedents, know very little if anything about them. Those men, and in a few instances women too, earned medals the hard way, most by fighting on the fields of battle. Some made the ultimate sacrifice, others earned them without so much as a scratch (mental anguish was never discussed). So, what should we be aware of regarding their medals and awards?
The commemorative bronze medals were established in 1913 and struck in 1914 by Royal Decree and manufactured in France. The two medals covered both army and naval service. The first medal signified participation in the First Balkan War 1912-1913 against the Ottoman Empire. The rim of the medal is inscribed in Greek: “With God, for King and Country.” The middle is a cross with crisscrossed swords in the background. The years “1912-1913” are at the base of the cross. On the reverse, three locations are spelled out: Macedonia, Epirus, Archipelagos. The ribbon is light blue with two thin white stripes on either side, and one thin red stripe down the middle.
The Second medal was for service in the Second Balkan War of 1913 against Bulgaria. That medal depicts the profile of King Constantine I on the front, inscribed with: “Constantine, King of the Hellenes.” On the reverse is the image of Emperor Basil II, and below his image are the dates of his reign, “976-1025”, (he was known as the Bulgar Slayer). The ribbon is also light blue but with four thin white stripes and a green stripe down the middle.
Each combatant, depending on the major battle they fought in, they would earn a ‘Battle Bar’ that would be affixed to the ribbon in the order the engagements took place, from first to last. If wounded, a bar with crossed swords was added above the battle bar. For those killed in action, a bar with a cross was affixed above the battle bar and the medal sent to their closest relative.
Medals were never awarded without the following documentation: a signed certificate by the King and the Secretary of the Military naming the soldier or sailor, where they hail from, and battles and/or significant engagements in which the soldier had participated in. Medals were presented in a dark blue cardboard box with a gold crown on the cover along with a photo of the King.
For civilians, nurses, medics, and doctors of the red cross, as well as any other volunteer that served during the wars, the medals were bestowed without any of the ‘battle clasps’. The ribbons were slightly different to denote the non-combatant status of the bearer. They had a white background with thin blue stripes on the edges, and a red or green stripe down the middle as previously described.
The presentation of medals took place almost exclusively in Greece, however there is documented proof that at least two ceremonies took place in the United States. The largest was in Chicago on October 1914, whereupon 143 Greek veterans were decorated in a public ceremony at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. The representative of the Greek King was entrusted with the distribution of the medals to those whose names appeared on the honor rolls. A celebration was organized to celebrate the recognition of the heroes, as documented in the local Greek newspaper.
In the picture above we have the commemorative medals for the First Balkan War on the left, and the Second Balkan War on the right. The first medal has five of the twelve army battle clasps on the ribbon in the correct order of battle. It is highly unlikely, if not impossible, for any one soldier or officer to have earned all of the battle clasps. On the right is the medal for the Second Balkan War with three of the four battle clasps in the correct order of battle.
Unfortunately, the importance and honor these medals bestowed upon the heroes has been all but forgotten. On the rare occasion one of these medals is spotted in a museum they are sometimes mistaken for WWI medals. Sometimes their battle clasps have been mistakenly rearranged when the medal was cleaned or when the ribbon was replaced with disregard to how the order of battle establishes the proper display of the medal. Worse still is a relative or a do-gooder confusing the Balkan Wars with other subsequent wars. Not understanding the differences minimizes the sacrifices and great accomplishments of those men.
For those that follow history, let us stop and remember those forgotten heroes. As Greek-Americans, we have a day once a year dedicated to the memory of veterans that died for their country, Memorial Day. Let us remember all the great Greek-American heroes that served and died in the U.S. military, as well as those that gave their lives for our ancestral home. May all their memories be eternal.
Next time, we rediscover the detailed story of the highest decorated U.S. Army Balkan War veteran.
Peter S. Giakoumis is the author of The Forgotten Heroes of the Balkan Wars: Greek-Americans and Philhellenes 1912-1913. Follow him on www.Facebook.com/1912GreekHistory.