Decorations, signs of national gratitude

Croix de guerre 1914-1918
Croix de guerre 1914-1918 (Cross of War). Source: Photo Franck Beauperin

By establishing the Croix de Guerre 1914-1918 (Cross of War), the decree of April 1915 set down the principle of honouring individual acts of bravery and the remarkable feats performed by military formations. However, this design continued way beyond the First World War.
Other decorations rewarded special courage and selfless action demonstrated during armed operations.

Corps 1

Croix de guerre 1914-1918 (Cross of War). Source: Photo Franck Beauperin

After the First Wold War, a few French contingents made a name for themselves in the French Empire's colonies, the protectorates or military missions conducted in various countries. To ensure the Croix de guerre 1914-1918 retained its prestige, this decoration was no longer awarded, particularly since a colonial medal existed that held the same function (1). However, General Lyautry suggested creating a ”special medal for individual honours in peacetime, bearing palms and stars”.
A bill was presented to the Chamber of Deputies in July 1920. On 30 April 1921, the law establishing a Special Cross of War for overseas theatres of operations (TOE) was published in the Journal Officiel, the official gazette of the French Republic. This new decoration was intended to ”commemorate individual mentions obtained in the various ranks of the army and the navy, during operations executed since 11 November 1918 or which may take place in the future, to reward clear services to war, directly related to the expedition”. This cross was modelled on the one established by the decree of April 1915: a croix pattée (arms narrow at centre and broader at perimeter) with two crossed swords between the arms. On the back is a ”Marianne” wearing a Phrygian cap and decorated with a laurel crown bearing the inscription ”République Française”. On the other side, it bears the words ”Théâtres d'Opérations Extérieures” in the centre. This bronze Florentine cross hangs from a ribbon of three vertical stripes: a wide central band, light blue to signify the distance of the theatres of operations, in between two red bands. The mentions are physically represented by a star or a palm, attached to the ribbon. In July 1925, a special fourragère (braided cord) in the colours of this decoration symbolised the collective honours obtained by the units.

Croix de guerre spéciale au titre des Théâtres d'opérations extérieures (TOE) / Special Cross of War for Theatres of Operations Overseas. Source: Photo Franck Beauperin

The first recipients were soldiers who fought in the Moroccan and Levant War. The soldiers in the Indochina War and the volunteers in the French battalion in the Korean War (1953) were also awarded this distinction. After the Suez Crisis in 1956, the Cross of War TOE was no longer awarded. It returned, however, during the Gulf War in 1991, but has not been awarded since 20 June 1999. A few days after war was declared in September 1939, Albert Lebrun decided in a statutory order of 26 September to create a cross, named the Croix de Guerre to honour individual mentions for acts of war in the French army, navy and air force. This new decoration had the same vocation as the previous medals and was awarded according to the same principles. It can be awarded to units, soldiers and French or foreign civilians. It differed from the First World War cross in the central part of the reverse side by bearing the inscription ”1939” and its red ribbon with four green vertical bands at the centre. However, the history of this decoration reflects the vicissitudes France experienced during this period. There have been several models of the Cross of War. After the Armistice of June 1940, General Weygand, believing the Cross of War 1939 was not being awarded in accordance with its original principles, demanded a review of all the mentions acquired during the battles of June 1940 to avoid this decoration being devalued. As a result of his instruction, the decree of 28 March 1941 established a new cross to replace the Croix de guerre ”1939”. Visually identical to the earlier model, it bore the dates 1930-1940. The ribbon was green and black as a symbol of mourning, evoking the commemorative model of 1870. The general's instruction remained in effect until the Liberation in 1945.

Corps 2

Croix de guerre 1939-1945 (Cross of War). Source: Photo Franck Beauperin

At the same time, Free France continued to attribute mentions entitling the decorated to wear a Cross of War. This model, known as the ”London”, was distinctive for not bearing the year inscription and for the ribbon used, which was the same as the 1930 model. Furthermore, following a decision made on 11 March 1943, General Giraud adopted, for the Army of Africa, a decoration that bore two crossed tricolour flags instead of an effigy of the Republic with the date 1943 on the reverse side. Manufactured locally, this distinction was withdrawn following the order of 4 January 1944.
From the Tunisian Campaign onwards, the mentions and Crosses of War were awarded as they were in 1914-1918. Since 1944 and to the present day, the Cross of War has hung from the 1939 ribbon, while its centre bore the inscription ”1939-1945”, eliminating the initiatives of the French State. This decoration thus honoured the fighters of 1940, the Free French engaged on all the fronts, the resistance fighters and the deportees. The Croix de guerre 1939-1945 was awarded to 1,585 cities in 86 French Departments and to 161 formations.
A visible testimony to collective mentions, the 1939-1945 fourragère bears the same colours as the one from 1914-1918, the only distinction being the addition of the olive (above the metal tag) in the decoration's ribbon colours. When the units were recognised during the two world wars, it contained two olives. Only the fourragère for the highest honour, obtained in either of the two wars, was worn on the uniform.

The Cross for Military Valour

Croix de la Valeur militaire. Source : Photo Franck Beauperin

Defined at the time as operations for the maintenance of law and order, the actions in North Africa were not entitled to receive an ”AFN” or ”TOE” cross of war.
To make up for this lack of provision and due to the special nature of these campaigns, the decree of 11 April 1956 created ”a medal for military valour intended to recognise soldiers who have accomplished brilliant feats during or on the occasion of security or maintenance of law and order operations”. But due to the precedence in the wearing of decorations (2), this medal had a very short life. The decree of 12 October replaced the word ”medal” for the term ”cross”. Physically similar to the Croix du combattant (3) (the Combatant's Cross), it is a bronze, four-armed croix pattée bearing the effigy of the Republic on one side and the inscription ”Croix de la Valeur Militaire” on the reverse. Given the specific character of these operations, the swords were removed. Its ribbon was scarlet with borders and a white central band. This decoration was awarded according to the same principles as the Cross of War, with the exception that it could only be designated for a collective operation. There was therefore no fourragère in the military valour colours. A relic of the conflicts in North Africa, the Cross for Military Value is still awarded in Zaire, Chad, Djibouti, Mauritania, Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and more recently Côte d'Ivoire.
Despite its individual characteristics, each Cross holds the same symbolic value and reflects the nation's recognition and gratitude.
(1) Created by the law of 26 July 1893, this medal rewarded ”military services resulting from the participation in war operations, either in a colony or in a protected state”. It was replaced in 1962 by the Médaille d'Outre-Mer (Overseas Medal).
(2) It was understood that a medal could not be worn immediately after a Cross of War. In this case, the medal for Military Valour was placed after the Algerian commemorative medal.
(3) Created by the law of 28 June 1930, the Combatant's Cross was intended ”to single out all those who, in danger of their life, defended the fatherland”. The recipient would have had to prove three months' service in a fighting unit.
Source: Les Chemins de la Mémoire magazine no. 155 - November 2005 for Mindef/SGA/DMPA