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Helvetia-Benigna-Medaille

Medal “Virtuous Helvetia”

This medal with quite an unusual history was instituted on May 15, 1917 by the German emperor Wilhelm II as a token of appreciation for merits of Swiss citizens who provided care of German prisoners of war (POWs) interned in Switzerland during the Great War.

An agreement regarding POWs was signed in 1914 by Russia, Germany, France, Great Britain and Belgium at a suggestion of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the government of Switzerland. Its clauses stipulated particularly that captured personnel of army and navy units not capable for further military service even after recovery could be repatriated via Swiss territory with an assistance of the Red Cross. The first such reparations took place in March 1915, and 8,700 French and 2,300 German servicemen approximately were sent home by November 1916. 

Internment of wounded and sick POWs was another concern of Swiss authorities who applied considerable efforts to make their recovery before repatriation as fast as possible. Relevant agreements had been signed by Germany with France followed by Great Britain and Belgium. According to those documents special mobile commissions were created with a task to visit POW camps and pick prisoners fit for internment in posse. Evaluation process was based on state of health of inmates rather than on a quota or a principle of nationality equivalence. Further lot of chosen POWs was decided by a multinational commission comprising of two Swiss military doctors, two doctors from the country of holding POW captive and one representative of prisoner’s home country.

The very first group of internees, 100 Germans and 100 French suffering from tuberculosis, arrived in Switzerland in January 1916, and by the end of that year nearly 27,000 former POWs were interned there. About half of them were French, a third Germans and the rest mostly British and Belgians. Altogether 68,000 foreigners were stationed in Switzerland by the end of the WWI. It should be observed that not only military personnel but civilians of call-up age held captive in enemy POW camps were also eligible for internment in a neutral country. Some Austro-Hungarian subjects were interned in Switzerland as well but no documentary evidence of presence of Russian POWs is known to exist. No American citizens were interned in the Swiss Confederation as Germany and the USA signed a relevant agreement only on November 11, 1918.

Terms and conditions of internment changed over the course of the war and were subject to additional agreements between hostile sides. Thus, according to an agreement between German Empire and France signed in May 1917, internees over a specified age were automatically repatriated after being held in captivity for 18 months. Concurrent agreement between Berlin and London signed in mid-1917 widened criteria of internment and sorted out those held in POW camp for more that 18 months and suffering from the so called Barbed wire sickness as eligible for immediate internment.

Internment regulations in Switzerland were rather strict and military discipline was enforced by Swiss commandants of camps. For instance, internees who decided to miss regular roll calls were even punished for violation of routine procedure with a brief imprisonment. No wonder that certain Germans even preferred to be held in British POW camps rather than be interned in neutral Switzerland.

Internees with stable health status were allowed to do farm work or any other job according to their pre-war professions. Earnings were used to improve their temporary residence conditions.

Having completed that necessary historical digression let’s return to the main subject of an article. 

Three versions of Helvetia-Benigna-Medaille are known to exist:

1. Grand “Virtuous Helvetia” Medal (Große Helvetia-Benigna-Medaille). Silver table medal was 60 mm in diameter and was awarded for exceptional merits in care of German POWs. Only 25 decorations were made.
2. Helvetia-Benigna-Medaille for men. Round medal made of silver or silvered zinc was 34,1 mm in diameter. It had no ribbon and could be worn at awardee’s discretion, e.g. on a pocket watch chain.
3. Helvetia-Benigna-Medaille for women. Round medal made of silver or silvered zinc was 34,1 mm in diameter. It was attached by a horizontal pin and catching hook soldered to its reverse.

An obverse has an allegoric composition against a mountain background with Helvetia stepping down from her throne being its central element. Helvetia, the female personification of Switzerland is surrounded by sick and wounded German POWs and several civilians including a young woman and a child. She has a plate with food in her right hand and lends her left hand to a wounded soldier with a bandaged arm. An upper part of an obverse has an inscription “Virtuous Helvetia” (“Helvetia Benigna”) running in semicircle in capital letters. Manufacturer’s mark, “BHM” standing for Bernhard Heinrich Mayer company of Pfozheim (Grand Duchy of Baden) is situated at the bottom.

Große Helvetia-Benigna-Medaille has two dates put on the lower left and right steps: 1914 and 1917 corresponding to the year the Great War broke out and the year the award was instituted. Those dates are absent on ordinary medals, sometime referred to as “kleine”, i.e. “small” ones.

A reverse has an inscription in five rows “Grateful Germany in Commemoration of the World War” (“Das dankbare Deutschland zur Erinnerung an den Weltkrieg”) executed in capital letters and encircled by a laurel wreath tied at the base by a ribbon tie. Equilateral Swiss cross or Red Cross with nine diverging rays is situated at the top of a reverse.

“Ordinary” silver Helvetia-Benigna-Medaille had maker’s mark (“BHM”) and silver hallmark (“990”) at the very bottom of a reverse, zinc one bore no marks.

No ribbon for Helvetia-Benigna-Medaille was instituted. Some historical digression is required for understanding this uncommon case.

Before 1848 Switzerland was famed for its mercenaries that served many European powers that were and their loyalty was won by means of awarding various decorations, titles and allowances. That custom had been put to its end with introduction of the Swiss Constitution of September 12, 1848 that was much influenced by ideas of the constitution of the USA as well as of the French Revolution. Mercenary service was abolished and Vatican became the only country allowed as a place of military service for Swiss citizens. Moreover, the first Swiss constitution not only abolished all state orders medals and decorations as an instrument of general equality but also introduced strict guidelines for foreign awards acceptance as a guarantee of its own independence from other countries. According to an Article 12 parliamentarians as well as federal employees were prohibited from acceptance and wearing of foreign awards. Revised version of the constitution that followed in 1874 broadened those regulations and extended ban to Swiss army personnel.

Nevertheless such restrictions didn’t stop certain politicians from accepting foreign awards and the most illustrious case was that of Gustave Ador (23.12.1845-31.03.1928) who served with the Department of Foreign Affairs (1917), the Department of Home Affairs (1918-1919) and even held post of a President of Confederation (January 01 – December 31, 1919). That noted politician sported Grand cross of the Legion of Honour, the highest French decoration.

Further toughening emerged in 1931 with a similar ban applying to cantonal authorities and employees. As for parliamentarians, they were ordered to surrender their foreign awards even if they had been decorated before their election to office.   

In modern Switzerland military personnel, federal employees as well as parliamentarians are still banned from acceptance of foreign awards. Those already decorated before taking office are obliged to restrain from wearing awards in public. 

National peculiarity described above was taken into consideration by Germans back in 1917 when Helvetia-Benigna-Medaille was instituted. Strict ban was resourcefully evaded by issuing a medal without ribbon so it could have been worn as a token or medallion on pocket watch chain by men and as a brooch on gown by women. 

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