This article explores the history of the first imperial decoration for gallantry, the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), and the stories of a number of recipients of the medal, including my great grandfather who was awarded the DCM for his actions at Gallipoli.

The DCM was introduced during the British Army’s war against Russia that commenced on 28 March 1854, primarily as there was no medals in the British Army at the time to reward gallantry. On 4 December 1854, Queen Victoria issued a Royal Warrant for the DCM, and stipulated that it would be restricted to non-commissioned officers and soldiers, ‘to reward distinguished, gallant and good conduct in the field’. The DCM initially came with an annual gratuity of between five and fifteen pounds, depending on rank.[1]

The DCM was the oldest British award for gallantry, and was the second level military decoration, ranking below the Victoria Cross (VC) once this was issued several years later on 29 January 1856.[1]

For the first eight years the DCM was not gazetted, this occurred on 30 September 1862, with a further Royal Warrant issued providing official authority, and stating that the medal would bear the words ‘For Distinguished Conduct in the Field’ on the reverse side. Originally, the obverse side bore a trophy of arms; however, in 1902 this was changed to an effigy of the reigning monarch.[1]

The riband (ribbon) was crimson in colour with a wide blue central strip, showing three strips of equal width, which were the colours of the military riband of England. On 24 May 1894, the medal was extended to colonial forces, which included Australians. The use of postnominals for the DCM was permitted from January 1918.[1]

DCMs were first awarded to British soldiers during the Crimean campaign in the war against Russia, where a total of 826 medals were issued. The first DCM’s awarded to Australian soldiers were to Sergeant Major G. Morris and Sergeant A. Houston of the NSW Lancers, for bravery at Tevreden Hill on 15 September 1899, during the Boer War.[1]

There are many notable Australian recipients of the DCM. One of the most famous soldiers to be awarded the DCM during the Gallipoli campaign was the Queenslander Private William Edward (Billy) Sing of the 5th Light Horse Regiment. His citation stated that the award was for ‘conspicuous gallantry from May to September 1915 at ANZAC as a sniper’. His exploits at Gallipoli were legendary as he had 201 confirmed kills as a sniper.[1]

Another soldier of note was Sergeant Henry Thompson of 16th Battalion in WA. He was awarded the DCM for bravery at Hebuturne, France, in World War I as part of the 1st AIF. Then as part of the 2/16th Battalion, 2nd AIF in World War II, having again risen to the rank of Sergeant, he was awarded the Military Medal for his actions on the Litani River in Syria.[1]

The last DCM awarded to an Australian soldier was to Private Peter Fyfe, a Tasmanian who served with 3 RAR during the Vietnam War.

From the Boer War through to the Vietnam War, the DCM was awarded to 2071 members of the Australian Army, and three ground members of the Air Force. In 1975 the British Imperial DCM was discontinued in Australia, and by 1991 Australian honours and awards were available to recognise gallantry that was previously recognised through the British Imperial system.

In the wake of the British Government 1993 review of their honours system, the Distinguished Conduct Medal was discontinued, and other gallantry medals introduced in its place, one of the reasons being was to remove distinctions of rank in respect of bravery awards.

My family connection to a DCM recipient in WWI

About ten years ago, along with my brother who is a researcher, we started delving into my family history, particularly the military side. My mother had always said that her grandfather had been at Gallipoli and that he had died in Marble bar when he fell off the back of an army truck in the 1930’s.

We checked the records from the National Archives of Australia, some of which had been put online by that time. My brother was relentless in his search and would spend hours every night trawling through old records such as Trove, which has many years of historical Australian newspapers.

We also found our great grandfather was mentioned in several books on Gallipoli, and my brother contacted the authors to check where they got their sources. This research was no easy task, but extremely interesting and rewarding as new details would come to light. I would encourage others to check the online records for information on their own military forebears.

What we found was that my great grandfather, Sergeant Walter Anthony Ayling, had joined the AIF in WA on 9 September 1914 when he was 29 years of age. His enlistment papers mention that he had served in the British Army in India in 1908 and had deployed to the North West Frontier, and that he had served in the Boer war as well, and that he had been issued the ‘South Africa Medal 1902’ and the ‘India General Service Medal 1908’.

On enlisting in the 11th Battalion, Sergeant Ayling was quickly promoted to platoon sergeant due to previous service and after a period of training at Blackboy Hill near Perth, his unit sailed on the troop ship HMAT Ascanius to Egypt in November 1914, where they conducted further training, and took part in the now famous 11th Battalion Cheops pyramid photo. After training in Egypt, they headed to Mudros, Lemnos in Greece and then to the Dardanelles, Gallipoli in Turkey.

According to the 11th Battalion war diaries at the Australian War Memorial, the unit landed at ANZAC Cove at 4:30am on the 25 April 1915, being the first group of battalions to land, as part of 3 Brigade. The war diaries for all the battalions that landed that day are hastily written and sketchy due to enemy resistance and confusion, with some battalions not making any entries for those first few days as they were no doubt fighting for their lives.

For his actions at ANZAC Cove, Sergeant Ayling was nominated for a Distinguished Conduct Medal by his Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Johnston. His citation in the London Gazette dated 1 June 1915 states, ‘On 25 April 1915, on operations near Kaba Tepe, for gallantry in commanding his platoon after his officer had been wounded; when compelled to retire he carried the wounded officer with him, and on obtaining reinforcements again led his platoon to the attack’.

In August 1915 Sergeant Ayling left Gallipoli due to illness and returned to Australia on the HMT Hororata, being the ship’s Sergeant Major on the return voyage. His arrival was mentioned in WA newspapers at the time due to the DCM awarded, with it being mentioned as the first bravery medal for the WA contingent in the war so far. He was promoted to Second Lieutenant on 25 October 1915, and was acting company commander of A Company at the Forrest Park Camp, Bunbury WA, in February 1916.

He was then posted to 16th Battalion and deployed back to France and Belgium. He saw action there for around seven months, before being repatriated to the UK, then Australia, due to the heart condition angina.

According to his military medical records, Sergeant Ayling was diagnosed with severe depression and neurasthenia on return from the war from what he had been through at Gallipoli and then France. His health and home life deteriorated, he lost his job, his marriage fell apart, and he became destitute and unable to look after or pay for the upkeep of his three children.

There is no doubt that he had hit rock bottom at this time after the war, and according to newspaper reporting at the time, which outlines family court transcripts, he blamed his war service for his dire situation, stating that he ‘was buried alive twice in France during the fighting and was now a wreck of a man’.

In the 1930s he left Perth for a new start and operated a small gold mine near the remote town of Marble Bar in the north of WA, with one of his young sons. He died there in 1937 from a vehicle accident and was buried in the town cemetery in an unmarked grave.

Details of what occurred were lost to my family for a long time; however, in 2014 at a time when there was a lot of national activity around the 100th anniversary of World War I, a local historian at Marble Bar was researching whether the town had any Great War veterans and she checked the grave records for the town and found a reference to where my great grandfather was buried. She obtained a grant to install a bronze Australian Army plaque for his grave. She also contacted my family in Perth and members of my family attended a ceremony at the grave on ANZAC day in 2015.

Several years ago I was able to visit the grave at Marble Bar and pay my respects, which was a moving experience. As the current platoon sergeant at 11th/28th Battalion RWAR, based in Bunbury WA, I hadn’t realised at the time we started researching my great grandfather that a hundred years previous he was a sergeant in 11th Battalion, which was a surprising and nice connection to the past, and one which I am proud of.