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Which French military decoration is called the "medal of the brave" or "the jewel of the armies"?

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Created on 22 January 1852 by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, future Napoléon III, the Military Medal (Médaille Militaire), also called the "medal of the brave" or "the jewel of the armies", is the highest French military award for non-commissioned officers and soldiers. With his intention to honour the merits of his best troops, the Prince President held the inaugural presentation ceremony on 22 March 1852 in Paris where he bestowed this honour to 48 soldiers in the presence of 6,000 troops commanded by General François Certain de Canrobert (27 June 1809 – 28 January 1895), who himself later received the Military Medal in 1855. The award's criteria for present-day military personnel is based on established merits which include: being enlisted in the armed forces for at least eight years; having been cited in army dispatches; having been wounded in combat or on duty; and having been distinguished by an act or courage and devotion. It may be granted as a reward for exceptional services to general officers. The Military Medal is the third French decoration in the order of precedence, after the Order of the Legion of Honour and the Order of Liberation. It may be awarded to foreigners.

As depicted in the photograph, the Military Medal is 28 mm in diameter with a yellow and green ribbon, and bears on the obverse in the center of the medallion the profile of Marianne, the effigy of the Republic, with the epigraph "REPUBLIQUE FRANCAISE" surmounted by a trophy of arms and on the reverse of the medallion, "VALEUR ET DISCPILINE" (English: "VALOUR AND DISCIPLINE"). There are more than a million soldiers and NCOs who were decorated in a century and a half of existence including: 950,000 during the First World War (most posthumously); 300,00 during the Second World War; 12,000 for the Indochina War; and 38,000 for the Algerian War. Today, about 3,000 soldiers receive the Military Medal every year. There are about 159,000 living military personnel and veterans who are medalists. It is worth noting that more than 10,000 women have been decorated with this honour since 1859.

Shown in the photograph is the first monument erected in honour of its war dead. The idea of having a monument to the glory of its decorated recipients dates back to 1920 and came to fruition in May 1922 with the launching of a construction fund that many subscribers quickly answered the call. Having received approval from the ministry of public education and fine arts, the monument was designed by Louis Jean Hulot (21 January 1871 – 7 January 1959), chief architect of historical monuments and the ornaments and bas-reliefs were executed by the sculptor Eugène Piron (30 April 1875 – 17 November 1928), prix de Rome (1903), who specialized in war memorials. The location of the stele is along an external wall of the prestigious and classic setting of the Hôtel national des Invalides – a former hospital and retirement home for war veterans – and is visible from the entrance to the Vauban courtyard. The monument's centrepiece is befittingly a panoply of the Military Medal, as awarded during the First World War. This perfectly balanced arrangement of military decoration, garlands, lions' heads and other pediments and pilasters is a magnificent backdrop to display the monument's epitaph: "A LA GLOIRE DES MÉDAILLÉS MILITAIRES MORTS AU CHAMP D'HONNEUR" which translates "TO THE GLORY OF THOSE DECORATED WITH THE MILITARY MEDAL WHO DIED IN THE FIELD OF HONOUR". This war memorial was inaugurated on 24 May 1925 in the presence of the President of the French Republic, Gaston Doumergue (1 August 1863 – 18 June 1937), surrounded by ministers, especially Paul Painlevé (5 December 1863 – 29 October 1933), President of the Council and Minister of War, marshals of France, notably Marshal Ferdinand Foch (2 October 1851 – 20 March 1929) who was President General of the Société nationale des médaillés militaires, and five hundred veterans – all recipients of the Military Medal. The monument's handover was made by Maurice Ternaux-Compans (20 January 1846 – 27 May 1930), President of the Société nationale des médaillés militaires and General Augustin Dubail (15 April 1851 – 7 January 1934), Grand Chancellor of the Legion of Honour.

For almost a century, this vestige of war has remained an important site of collective memory whereby comrades-in-arms continue to honour the memory and sacrifice of all recipients of the Military Medal – be they French or those from Allied forces who fought alongside them, including 55 Canadians who were awarded this decoration during the First World War. In an effort to keep the flame of remembrance alive, Jean-Paul Martin, President General of the Société nationale d'entraide de la Médaille Militaire (SNEMM) undertook works in 2017 to install appropriate and modern lighting that would allow for this historic monument to be admired at night. This was accomplished with the full support from the Governor of the Invalides, the Director of the Institute of the Invalides and the authorization of the Military Governor of Paris. An official lighting ceremony – presided by General Benoît Puga (30 January 1953 – ), Grand Chancellor of the Legion of Honour – was held at the monument on 15 November 2017 in the presence of veterans and high-level dignitaries. This also included representation from the Canadian Armed Forces, namely, Lieutenant-General Charles Lamarre, Commander, Military Personnel Command and Chief Warrant Officer Martin Colbert, Military Personnel Command Chief Warrant Officer. The current President General of the SNEMM is José Miguel Real, himself a recipient of the Military Medal.

On this day, 22 January 2022, we commemorate the 170th anniversary of the creation of France's Military Medal and mark nearly 97 years since the dedication of its first monument, erected at the Hôtel national des Invalides in Paris, in memory of those medalists who died in the Field of Honour.

André M. Levesque

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