According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a mention in despatches is a "commendatory reference made to a person in an official military dispatch". Generally known in the British Army as an MiD, since everything in the British Army is given a three-letter acronym wherever possible, it is regarded as being the lowest form of recognition for military service, which together with the Victoria Cross, is one of the few military honours that can be awarded posthumously.
A despatch is simply the official report of the senior army commander in the field detailing the conduct of military operations, during which the commander might well feel it necessary to mention the names of those individuals who had in some way made a significant contribution to the operation in question. At the time of the Boer War it became the practice for these despatches, or at least a version thereof, to be published in The London Gazette. Of course once the names of individual soldiers were made public in this manner, it came to be regarded as something of a mark of distinction to be so named, and the phrase mentioned in despatches entered the language, being first recorded in print in an article written by a certain Winston Churchill which appeared in the Morning Post of the 6th October 1898.
At that time, it was nevertheless an entirely unofficial honour, indeed as Albert Michael Neil Lyons wrote in Kitchener (1915) "there's no particular cop about these 'mentions'; only something for your pals to read". However after the end of World War I, Army Order 166/1919 sanctioned the issuing of certificates to "all personnel of the Navy, Army, and Royal Air Force, and to members of the Indian, Dominion, Colonial and Egyptian Forces who from time to time had been 'mentioned' in military despatches during this particular war by a commander in the field". (And also incidentally to "members of the Red Cross, Y.M.C.A., Y.W.C.A. and British civilians of both sexes".) In the following year Army Order 3/1920 authorised the issuing of an emblem of multiple oak leaves in bronze to all those that had been mentioned in despatches between the 4th August 1914 and the 10th August 1920 which was to be worn on the recipients Victory Medal or War Medal. It has been said that the decision was made to officially recognise the honour in this manner because of disquiet amongst the ranks arising from the fact that those serving in the allied forces of Belgium, France and Italy were being given medals for their equivalent of mentions.
It was of course perfectly possible for individuals to have been mentioned in despatches on a number of occasions and therefore received multiple certificates recording the honour, and many have indeed done so, such as John Standish Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort who was mentioned in despatches no less than eight times during World War I. However no matter how many mentions an individual received they were only issued one emblem.
Similar Certificates of Mentions in Despatches together with a single bronze oak leaf emblem were issued for service in operations between the two World Wars, for service during World War II, and for service in operations after the war right up until 1993. Since the 3rd September 1993 the award of a Mention in Despatches together with a single silver oak leaf emblem is only issued for "gallantry in active operations", whilst mere meritorious service is recognised by the award of the Queen's Commendation for Valuable Service (QCVS) together with an emblem of multiple oak leaves in silver.
Dispatch or despatch?
Despatch is of course merely an alternative spelling of the word dispatch, and generally speaking the Oxford English Dictionary and most other similar authorities appear to prefer dispatch to despatch. However the military (for whatever reason) appears to prefer mentioned in despatches to mentioned in dispatches, and therefore the former is by far the more common variant.
- The Oxford English Dictionary, http://www.oed.com/
- The National Archive Glossary,
- Mentions in Despatches (MiD),
- Notes On Accessing Service Records: The National Archives And Internet
- Order of Wear, Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood, 17th March 2003