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Which military decoration did France create during the Great War to recognize acts of bravery on the battlefield?

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At the beginning of the Great War, France as well as the former British Empire did not have a specific decoration recognizing acts of bravery, either by individuals or groups for actions "mentioned in despatches" - that is, one whose name appears in an official report written by a senior commander in the field, in which is described the soldier's gallant or meritorious action in the face of the enemy. For soldiers of the British Empire it was not until 1919 that a certificate was introduced to acknowledge those who received mention and in January 1920, the British created an emblem of bronze oak leaves to be worn on the ribbon of the Victory Medal to signify that the recipient received an 'MiD'. In the case of France, there was much pressure to formally recognize such acts of bravery early during the war as during the Battle of the Frontiers and the first Battle of the Marne alone, there were more than 500,000 French casualties during the fighting between 7 August to 12 September 1914. The Ordre National de la Légion d'Honneur (established by Napoléon in 1802), the Médaille Militaire (created by Napoléon III in 1852), including regimental citations, existed but were seldom awarded in order to keep their prestige high. Akin to the British practice, French despatches were only a written testimony cited in press releases, military service documentation and passbook. Writer Maurice Barrès, a Deputy of Paris elected at the French Academy in 1906, soon requested "the creation of a new military distinction, a bronze medal so that the commanding officer may decorate his bravest soldiers on the battlefield after each action". The idea gained ground, and after much parliamentary discussions, a bill enacted on 8 April 1915 created the 'Croix de guerre', amending the original project submitted under the name 'Croix de la Valeur Militaire' (Cross of Military Valour). This decoration was to be conferred on French and foreign nationals who fought on French soil until the end of the conflict. With the first Cross awarded to Corporal Sylvain Métivier (1881 - 1951) from the 66th Infantry Regiment on 23 February 1915, the Croix de Guerre became France's best-known and cherished First World War military decoration.

A decree published on 23 April 1915 establishes the decoration's appearance and eligibility criteria. A design by Paul-Albert Bartholomé (1848 - 1928) was chosen out of seven proposals. The medal is a bronze cross pattée surmounted with a center medallion of the French Republic wearing a Liberty cap and two crossed swords. The reverse side bears the year 1914 together with the year in which it was struck until the year 1918. The Cross is suspended by a green ribbon with seven narrow vertical red stripes symbolizing hope and the blood spilled, a copy of the ribbon of the Médaille de Sainte-Hélène - created in 1857 as France's first campaign medal - to associate "the glorious memories of past great wars with the great war of today". In addition, an insignia corresponding to each citation was affixed on the ribbon. A bronze star indicates a regimental or brigade despatch, a silver star for a division citation and a silver-gilt star for an army corps one. The bronze palm stood for an army citation, where five bronze palms were replaced by a silver one starting January 1917. The Croix de Guerre shown in the photograph is the 1914-1915 version with six citations affixed on the ribbon: one bronze star, two silver stars and three bronze palms. Normally, there was enough room for several of them, but pilots would get one army citation for each aerial victory. Lieutenant René Fonck, who still holds the title of top-scoring Allied fighter Ace of all times, pinned twenty height palms and one bronze star on a 12 inch long ribbon. Award of the Légion d'Honneur for valour and the Médaille Militaire automatically brought entitlement to the Croix de Guerre. In 1915, the "fourragère", a braided fabric cord with the ribbon's colours, was introduced to distinguish military units (company, regiment, boat, squadron, etc.) and was first awarded on 21 April 1916 - not be confused with the gold "aiguillette" of the aide-de-camp introduced by Napoléon. Worn by all members of the unit, this insignia also hangs on the unit's flag. This prompted the creation in June 1917 of a distinctive fourragère for the Médaille Militaire and in October 1917 for the Legion of Honour.

The Croix de Guerre soon became a highly symbolic decoration to the point that French soldiers wore it on the battlefield. On 1 March 1920 the Ministry of War listed 2,055,000 individual despatches that did not include posthumous ones and crosses presented with the Légion d'Honneur and the Médaille Militaire. The Ministry awarded 1,200,000 Croix de Guerre, to Allied and French soldiers, sailors and pilots, not to mention civilians. Further, the Cross was conferred to over 600 military units, 30 warships and boats and 70 squadrons, including 18 municipalities, 2,951 French and foreign towns like Venice starting with Dunkirk in October 1917, and even animals. Among the many courageous foreign recipients we have chosen to mention 'Cher Ami' (dear friend), a British pigeon carrier, who saved the lives of 194 American soldiers by carrying a message across enemy lines in the Battle of the Argonne, October 1918. Cher Ami was shot in the chest and leg, blinded in one eye, losing most of the leg to which the message was attached, but continued the 25-mile flight avoiding shrapnel and poison gas to get the message home.

The original Croix de Guerre was intended to cover actions on the Western Front during the time of the conflict. Its symbolism had been so powerful that it has given rise to the 1939-1945 Croix de Guerre and the Croix de Guerre TOE (Foreign Theatres of Operation) created in 1921 for actions during military operations carried out since 11 November 1918 or that would occur in the future. Only their ribbon differs. To this day, only the French Marine Tank Infantry Regiment (RICM) based in Poitiers along with the 3rd Foreign Infantry Regiment of the Foreign Legion based in the French Guiana have been conferred the three distinctions and bear all three Légion d'Honneur, Médaille Militaire and Croix de Guerre 1914-1918, 1939-1945, TOE fourragères.

On this day, 8 April 2022, we mark the 107th anniversary of the creation of the French Croix de Guerre to recognize acts of bravery on the battlefield.

Christophe Kervégant-Tanguy / André M. Levesque

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