Can I Wear My Grandfather’s War Medals?

This April Canada is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge (1917), one of the five major battles fought by Canadians during World War I.  Before that came the 2nd Ypres (1915), then the Somme (1916); after Vimy Ridge was Passchendaele (1917) followed by Amiens (1918).

Medals (and certain badges) were awarded in recognition of an individual’s participation in a certain event or campaign.  Of the five medals available to men and women who served in WWI, the two most commonly awarded were the British War Medal (6.4 million issued globally) and the Victory Medal (5.7 million issued globally) – they are most often found together.  Awards for gallantry (e.g., the Victoria Cross) are much less common.

Since WWI, members of the Canadian armed forces have received medals and awards for service during the Second World War (1939–45), Korean War (1950–53), Gulf War (1990–91), and other wars, and will continue to receive them for future conflicts.  The Memorial Cross (also called the Silver Cross) was introduced in 1919 and is still awarded to the next-of-kin of those who have died in, or as a result of, active service.

Military items can often be found in an estate and raise questions about what one can do with medals, discharge papers, and uniforms.  Another query arises as to whether one could, or should, wear medals on Remembrance Day to honour a deceased relative.  There are those supportive of the latter idea and those opposed.

One suggestion is that a relative of a deceased veteran wear the medals on the right side of the body (in contrast to the normal left-hand side) to indicate that they themselves did not earn them.  Those opposed to this idea argue that war medals worn by others likens them to a form of costume jewellery which diminishes the experience, sacrifice, or valour of the person awarded them.

The question about wearing a relative’s medals, however, is moot.  It is illegal in Canada to do so.  Article 419 of the Criminal Code states, in part, that unless lawfully authorized (i.e., you have earned the right to), you cannot wear the uniform, military medal, ribbon, or badge, or anything likely to be mistaken for any of these.  Period.  Other countries have similar legislation.

So, what to do with medals found in an estate?  You can honour a relative by displaying their military items in a glass case or by mounting medals in a frame along with a picture or story.  Alternatively, you can sell the items to a collector or donate them to a school.

In addition, you can honour their memory by attending local Remembrance Day services, visiting historical sites or taking part in memorial celebrations (November 10 marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele).

As long as there are wars and other conflicts that require a military presence there will be medals and the family members’ wish to honour those who have participated or lost their lives doing so.

About Penny Schneider

Penny Schneider, TEP is a Trained Professional Organizer who works specifically with executors on estates. On the 1st of each month Penny writes short pieces about things important to executors (what to do when) and on the 15th with things an executor might find (what to do with). Penny assists clients throughout Toronto, York Region and the surrounding area.
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