Over time the custom of wearing full-sized medals on everyday uniforms has largely ended. Today they are only worn on formal occasions. Instead of wearing full-sized medals, ribbon bars are worn in their place. These ribbons are usually worn over the left pocket and are mounted on bars in a specific order of precedence. Until recent times each ribbon bar represented an actual medal; however, the use of "ribbon-only" awards has become increasingly popular, especially in the United States.
Ribbon-only awards may be personal decorations (like the Navy's Combat Action Ribbon or the Coast Guard Commandant's Letter of Commendation Ribbon); unit awards, or they may be individual service awards. The first ribbon-only award is probably the least known: the Army's Wound Ribbon, established in September of 1917 but rescinded in January of 1918. The next ribbon award was the Marine Corps Expeditionary Ribbon, established in 1919 but converted to a medal in 1921. Although a number of other medals started out as ribbon-only awards and were later converted to medals, the practice of using ribbon-only awards is now firmly established in all service branches. Contemporary ribbon awards have been largely pioneered by the Air Force, but the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard soon followed suit. All of the Armed Forces now make fairly liberal use of ribbon-only awards, and this is a trend that is likely to continue into the future.
Although the use of ribbons to designate unit citations is a relatively recent development in the United States, the practice of recognizing units for especially noteworthy performance is by no means new. The use of ribbon bars to denote unit citations grew out of the European custom of decorating the "colors" of military units.
In the past, military colors (which are actually flags) were carried into battle to serve as a rallying point for the troops and to inspire them to "defend their colors." The traditional designation of flags carried by dismounted troops was colors, whereas the flags carried by mounted troops were known as standards. The chief difference between them was size: standards were smaller and therefore easier for mounted riders to carry.
In 1807 Emperor Alexander I of Russia gave special "St. George flags" to units that distinguished themselves in battle. Along with the usual colors, these flags also had a copy of the St. George Medal attached to the tip of the flagpole, and a streamer in the pattern of the ribbon of the St. George Medal was attached to the pole. Seven years later (on June 3, 1814), the Supreme Cabinet of the German Kingdom of Prussia issued an order providing for the decorating of unit flags. All Prussian units which had been in combat were to have an Iron Cross attached to the tip of their flagpoles, and a streamer in the pattern of the War Commemorative Medal was also to be attached. The streamers ultimately used were black with two white side-stripes (the colors of the ribbon of the Iron Cross).
The British historically employed a different means for recognizing units. They embroider their colors with the names of important engagements in which the unit participated. However, the British do not award specific decorations to their colors. The French, on the other hand, not only embroider their colors with the names of a unit's four most important engagements, they also award specific decorations to military units. They use a cravate (ribbon) which is attached to the staff that carries the colors, and when a unit is cited in orders of the army for extraordinary services a Croix de Guerre is attached to the cravate. If a regiment is decorated twice its individual members are entitled to wear a fourragere in the colors of the Croix de Guerre (red and green). If a color is decorated four times, members of the unit may wear a fourragere in the colors of the Medaille Militaire (yellow and green); and after a regiment has been decorated six times its members may wear a fourragere in the colors of the Legion of Honor (red). A number of other nations employ similar methods for recognizing the performance of their military units.
The United States did not historically grant unit awards of its own, although some units received them from the French and Belgian governments during the First World War. This meant the Army had to acknowledge the use of foreign unit awards in a system in which it had no corresponding domestic unit awards. To deal with this problem, after the First World War the Army authorized the members of units cited in War Department Orders to wear a silver star on the cuff of the sleeve to denote each citation (a gold star being used in place of three such citations). The use of these stars was discontinued in November of 1931 when the Army authorized a streamer of blue silk to denote meritorious service in action for which a brigade or higher was mentioned in War Department orders. The blue streamer was to be embroidered in white with the name of the action for which it was awarded. At the same time it created this streamer, the Army also specified that when the award of a foreign decoration was authorized to an American unit, the decoration itself would be attached to a streamer near the spearhead of the unit's colors. The Army directed that one decoration per streamer would be used, and the streamers were to be the colors of the corresponding ribbon of the decoration, with the name of the action for which it was awarded embroidered thereon. Streamers were subsequently authorized for the French Croix de Guerre and the Portuguese Order of the Tower and the Sword. Oddly enough, there is no record of the blue silk streamer having been actually authorized for any specific unit, probably because its use was not retroactive and the Army had to wait ten more years before it was again engaged in hostilities.
At the outbreak of the Second World War the Army again considered the matter of providing unit citations, and in 1942 a proposal was submitted suggesting that when a unit was cited on two or more occasions a streamer should be authorized for that unit's colors or standard. In order to recognize individual members of the unit, the proposal stated that a "service ribbon only" should be authorized for individual wear. In response to this proposal, and after considerable study and effort, unit citations as we know them were created. The first was the Navy's [Presidential] Unit Citation, established by Executive Order on February 6, 1942, followed twenty days later by the Army's Distinguished Unit Citation. In time they were redesignated as the Navy Presidential Unit Citation and the Presidential Unit Citation (Army). Although the Navy's Presidential Unit Citation is the organizational equivalent of an individual award of the Navy Cross and the Army's Presidential Unit Citation is the organizational equivalent of an individual award of the Distinguished Service Cross, neither ribbon embodies the colors of those decorations.
A number of additional citations have been established, most of which are likewise unit equivalents of specific individual decorations. Although individual may wear these ribbons, they are unit rather than personal awards. Individuals wear them to denote service in the unit at the time the citation was earned. Army unit awards are unique in that they are all contained within a gold frame.