The Queen Elisabeth Medal

In May 2020, the medical world has been struggling for almost two months to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. Going beyond the scope of their duties and putting their lives at risk, health care workers are being admired around the world. This recognition results into daily applause and various forms of support.

It is a seemingly unprecedented situation, but one that it reminds us an of another, as this medal in the effigy of Queen Elisabeth attests.

Instituted on 15 September 1916, this bronze medal is intended for those, Belgians or foreigners, who, during the First World War, devoted themselves to war reliefs for at least one year.

One version of this decoration bears a red cross in the open circle below the ribbon. It is intended to hospital staff to thank them for their devotion to the sick and wounded, and more particularly to the nurses who, in a spirit of steady and discreet sacrifice, helped to ease the misery caused by the war.

Queen Elisabeth and the Myth of the White Angels

The association with Queen Elisabeth, Queen Nurse presented on the obverse* of the medal is natural, because, as Home secretary Paul Berryer reminds us, "she personifies goodness, devotion and self-sacrifice".

On the reverse, a female figure wearing the veil of the nurse holding an oil lamp - a reference to Florence Nightingale, the lady with the lamp, an English pioneer of nursing - and surrounded by the text "Pro Patria Honore et Caritate" ("for the country, honour and charity") symbolizes submission to the work of duty and humanity, virtues ascribed to those who will be called "white angels".

Although a plaque cannot be enough to make people forget the turmoils  of war, it nevertheless underlines the recognition of a profession that was particularly in demand during the war. The deadly fighting that followed the invasion of Belgium by German troops on 4 August 1914 quickly had repercussions on the Army Medical Service and the Red Cross sections, which were disorganised and overwhelmed by events.

There was a lack of trained staff and qualified nurses, and first-aid posts were hastily opened throughout the country; many women volunteered for these posts, such as Josephine Cloostermans, a boatwoman who joined the Red Cross at the outbreak of the war and who will later be awarded the Queen Elisabeth Medal for helping the sick and wounded in Ypres during the winter of 1914.

Geoffrey Schoefs

* In numismatics, the obverse (or right) is the side of the coin bearing the essential effigy or design. The opposite of the obverse is the reverse.

Photo captions :
  • Obverse: representation of Queen Elisabeth (photo no. 1)
  • Reverse: representation of the Lady with the lamp (photo no. 2)

Queen Elisabeth Medal
Grand Curtius Museum