14 Minutes To Read

Foreigners, Fighting and Phaleristics: Military Medals in British Burma

14 Minutes To Read

Andrew Selth assesses the value of military medals to researchers interested in Burma’s modern history.

It has been said that a country’s culture is a window unto its soul. With this in mind, it has become commonplace for scholars to try and interpret a country’s history and national character through its art and literature, and other intellectual achievements by the society’s so-called elite. Over the past several decades, however, there has been a growing acceptance in academic circles that a great deal can also be learned about a country and its people by studying its related popular culture, including material objects often viewed as ephemera and lacking intrinsic worth. These include many items usually dismissed as colourful but essentially valueless collectibles, such as comic books, pulp fiction magazines, postcards, posters, stamps, coins, trading cards and matchbox labels.[1]

Military medals and decorations are awarded by governments for specific services to the state, so in that sense they are not artefacts of popular culture, shared by mass populations. However, they are often included in this broad category and, like the other objects mentioned above, do not always get the attention from researchers that they deserve.

The practice of awarding medals for war service can be traced back to the Romans, but it tended to be rather haphazard.[2] During the 18th century, the Honourable East India Company (HEIC) began issuing campaign medals, mainly as a reward for its troops. The first real national campaign medal was the Waterloo Medal, struck after the Coalition victory against Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815. As the practice of awarding medals grew, so too did the number of people studying and collecting them. Phaleristics, as this hobby became known, is sometimes considered a branch of numismatics, the study and accumulation of coins and paper currency, but it has long been an interest in its own right.[3] One reason for its popularity, albeit among a fraternity of devoted specialists, is its connection to specific historical events and personalities, in the form of campaign medals and decorations for distinguished conduct.[4]

This can be seen, for example, by looking at the medals issued by various authorities for military actions in British Burma, from the opening of hostilities against the Konbaung dynasty in 1824 to 1948, when Burma regained its independence.

Great Britain conquered Burma in three wars.[5] The First Anglo-Burmese War, which saw most of the coastal areas of the country ceded to the British, was from April 1824 to February 1826. The Second Anglo-Burmese War, which resulted in the annexation of Lower Burma, was waged from April 1852 to January 1853. The Third Anglo-Burmese War saw the fall of the Burmese capital of Mandalay in 1885 and the exile of the Burmese king to India. It was followed in January 1886 by the annexation of Upper Burma, giving Britain control of the entire country. There followed a decade of counter-insurgency campaigning as former Burmese soldiers, armed bandits (or dacoits) and rebellious ‘hill tribes’ defied British rule.[6] This ‘pacification’ campaign was, as always in such circumstances, ‘messy and slow’.[7] As late as 1893, major expeditions were being mounted against key resistance groups.

In different ways, all these military campaigns were recognised by the issue of medals, or clasps to existing medals. (A clasp is a thin metal bar attached to the ribbon of a medal typically used to denote particular campaigns or operations.)[8] Each award has a back story that adds to its historical interest.

In 1826, at the conclusion of the First Anglo-Burmese War, the Governor-General of India awarded the Burma Medal to native Indian soldiers of the HEIC armies who had participated in the conflict. The obverse (or face) of the medal depicted the elephant of Burma crouching in submission to the victorious British lion. The reverse (or back) depicted the storming of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, with the British fleet in the background.[9] The accompanying ribbon was crimson with dark blue edges, similar to the Waterloo Medal. About 750 gold medals were awarded to officers and officials, and about 24,000 silver medals were awarded to the other ranks, including to the heirs of those who had died on operations. The only European to receive this medal was General Sir Archibald Campbell, who had commanded both the British and Indian forces during the campaign.

The Burma Medal, 1824-1826 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Operations in Burma after the First Anglo-Burmese War were not recognised by the issue of specific medals, only clasps.

The Europeans who had taken part in the First Anglo-Burmese War were later entitled to wear the Army of India Medal, with the clasp Ava.[10] This campaign medal was approved in 1851 for issue to members of both the British army and the army of the HEIC, retrospectively to recognise military service between 1799 and 1826. In addition to the clasp covering the first war with Burma, another 20 were authorised, covering episodes in the Second (1803-1804) and Third (1817-18) Mahratta Wars, the Gurkha War (1814-16) and the Siege of Bhurtpoor in 1826. The medal was a silver disc 36mm in diameter. The obverse bore an effigy of the young Queen Victoria while the reverse side bore an allegorical depiction of winged Victory, holding a laurel branch. The medal was mounted on a pale blue ribbon. Only about 4,500 medals were issued, as they were only awarded to survivors of these campaigns.

Army of India Medal (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
In 1854, the British government approved the India General Service Medal (IGSM).[11] Twenty-four clasps were awarded for 23 campaigns, with 55 qualifying actions. Seven clasps were issued for conflicts in Burma. These were PeguBurma 1885-7Burma 1887-89Chin-Lushai 1889-90Burma 1889-92Chin Hills 1892-93 and Kachin Hills 1892-93.[12]  The Pegu clasp was awarded to those who had fought in the Second Anglo-Burmese War. Because of the maritime element of the campaign, a large number went to members of the Royal Navy. The Burma 1885-7 clasp was for service in the Third Anglo-Burmese War and the pacification efforts that engaged the British forces immediately afterwards. The Burma 1887-89 and Burma 1889-92 clasps were issued for later operations against rebels and dacoits.[13] The other three clasps were for specific expeditions mounted against rebellious ‘hill tribes’ found around the periphery of India’s new province. The 1854 IGSM medal depicted an effigy of Queen Victoria wearing a diadem on the obverse side and Victory crowning a warrior with a laurel wreath on the reverse.[14] The ribbon was red with two blue vertical stripes. It was initially issued in silver to all ranks, regardless of ethnicity or branch of service. However, starting from 1885, with the Burma 1885-7 clasp, both medal and clasp were issued in bronze to native support personnel. Throughout this difficult and dangerous period, however, the fighting in Burma was not formally ranked as a military campaign. It was seen more as ‘police work’. As Ian Beckett has observed, ‘Pleas [from local officials and military commanders] for a separate medal … were rejected … The Military Secretary, Sir George Harman, suggested there had been too little action and the Prince of Wales, too, was led to believe that there had been few casualties’.[15] Hence, the repeated issue of individual clasps to cover specific periods and combat operations.

Because the fighting in Burma was not considered by the higher authorities in Britain to be a ‘real’ military campaign (despite it being just as hazardous as operations elsewhere that attracted greater attention, such as those in Egypt), senior officers were under pressure to restrict the number of names put forward for individual honours.[16] Even so, during the pacification campaign that followed the fall of Mandalay, three Victoria Cross (VC) medals were won for conspicuous gallantry.[17] All were by medical officers. Surgeon John Crimmin of the Bombay Medical Service won a VC on 1 January 1889 near Loikaw in Karenni (now Kayah) State.[18] Surgeon Ferdinand Le Quesne of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) won a VC for his actions during the Battle of Siallum (Tartan) in the Chin Hills on 4 May 1889.[19] Surgeon-Major Owen Lloyd, also of the RAMC, won his VC at Fort Sima on 6 January 1893, on the Kachin Hills expedition.[20]

Victoria Cross Medal (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The 1854 IGSM was the first standardised area medal to which various clasps could be added as required or earned.[21] It remained current for over 40 years before the introduction of a new IGSM (popularly known as the India Medal) in 1895. (It is said that a British general, observing the number of clasps on the medals of his troops, felt that they deserved greater recognition for their efforts and agitated for a new medal to be struck.) The obverse of the 1895 IGSM was an effigy of Queen Victoria as the Empress of India. The reverse depicted a British and Indian soldier jointly holding a standard. The ribbon had five equal stripes, two green and three red. This medal was replaced by a new IGSM in 1908. The obverse was an effigy of King George V, while the reverse depicted a Khyber Pass fort and the word ‘India’. It had a green ribbon with a broad blue central stripe. For early campaigns, it was awarded in silver to combatants and in bronze to native bearers and servants. After 1919, however, all awards were in silver.

The 1908 IGSM had 12 clasps, the tenth of which was Burma 1930-32. This was awarded to British and Indian soldiers for service during the unrest known as the Saya San Rebellion. Saya San was a former Buddhist monk who sparked a series of actions against the colonial administration. He claimed supernatural powers and, capitalising on social and economic tensions, persuaded many rural workers in central Burma that he could restore the Burmese monarchy. The British army and police forces stationed in Burma at the time were unable to crush the unrest, which spread to 12 of the province’s 40 districts. The local government was forced to send for reinforcements from India. Saya San was captured in August 1931.[22] In addition to those who were directly employed in suppressing the rebellion, medals and clasps were also issued to certain personnel who served in 25 civil districts from 22 December 1930 to 25 March 1932.

A new India General Service Medal was introduced in 1936, but it was not issued to anyone in Burma before the province separated from India in 1937, and became a crown colony in its own right. Service personnel and others serving in Burma were still eligible for British medals, but a number of awards were created specifically for the new colony.

Before 1937, members of the Burma Police, the Burma Military Police (BMP) and recognised fire services in Burma had been eligible for the 1910 King’s Police Medal and the 1932 Indian Police Medal for gallantry or distinguished service. In December 1937 a new medal was introduced, called the Burma Police Medal (BPM).[23] It could be awarded to members of the Burma Police, BMP, Frontier Force (formed mostly from former BMP units) and certain fire brigades. Cast in bronze, the obverse showed King George VI, and the reverse was inscribed ‘Burma Police, For Distinguished Conduct’. The ribbon was black with a blue central stripe and white edges. The medal was open to all ranks, European and Burmese, but only 141 were issued. Of the total, 53 were issued for gallantry and 80 for meritorious service. Eight were unclassified.[24]

The Burma Gallantry Medal (BGM) was established by royal warrant in 1940. It was intended to be the Burma equivalent of the 1907 Indian Distinguished Service Medal for commissioned and non-commissioned officers, and other ranks of the Burma Army (also known as Burma Army Command or simply Burma Command) and associated forces, following Burma’s separation from India in 1937. Cast in silver, the obverse of the BGM bears the crowned effigy of King George VI. The reverse bears a laurel wreath and the inscriptions ‘Burma’ and ‘For Gallantry’. The medal is suspended from a dark green ribbon with a crimson central stripe. By the time the award became obsolete at the end of 1947, only 207 medals and three bars had been conferred.[26]
The Order of Burma (OOB) was effectively a replacement for the 1837 Order of British India. It was founded by royal warrant in 1940 and conferred in a single class. It was awarded by the Governor of British Burma for long, faithful and honourable service by Governor’s Commissioned (i.e. native Burmese) officers in the Burma Army, Frontier Force and BMP. In 1945, the royal warrant was amended to permit the award of the OOB for acts of gallantry. The badge was a gold rayed star surmounted by an imperial crown. In the centre was a roundel showing a male peacock in full display surrounded by the words ‘Order of Burma’. It was hung from a neck ribbon of dark green edged in light blue. Only 33 individuals were ever made members of the Order, making it one of the rarest decorations ever created by the British government.[26]

The Second World War saw Burma subjected to two invasions and widespread devastation in what one observer has described as the longest campaign of the war and arguably the most ferocious and most varied.[27] Given the duration and nature of the conflict, it should come as no surprise that a large number and wide range of medals and decorations (including 22 VCs) were awarded to members of the Allied forces. Special mention should be made of Major Hugh Seagrim, who was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the civilian equivalent of the VC, in 1946, for conspicuous gallantry after being captured by the Japanese.[28]

The campaign itself was commemorated by two medals. The first was the Burma Star, one of the eight campaign medals instituted in May 1945 for award to British and Commonwealth forces.[29] It was a six-pointed yellow copper-zinc alloy star with the royal cypher of King George VI on the obverse, surmounted by a crown. The cypher was surrounded by a circlet reading ‘The Burma Star’. The reverse was plain. The ribbon was red with edges of dark blue and orange, representing the Commonwealth forces and the sun. The medal was awarded for operational service between 11 December 1941 (when Japan invaded Burma) and 2 September 1945 (when Japan formally surrendered in Tokyo). It was also awarded for specified service in the surrounding seas, and in parts of China, Hong Kong, Malaya and Sumatra. Additional service in the Pacific theatre entitled Burma Star medal holders to wear the Pacific clasp.

The other relevant campaign medal was the Pacific Star. The medal was the same as the Burma Star, but with ‘The Pacific Star’ in the central circlet. The ribbon was seven coloured stripes; red, narrow dark blue, green, narrow yellow green, narrow light blue and red, representing the three services and the forests and beaches of the Pacific. Anyone who had served in the Burma theatre as well was entitled to wear the medal with the clasp Burma. (No recipient could receive both the Burma and Pacific Stars).[30] Some Allied prisoners of war (POW) who worked on the Siam-Burma railway during the war were awarded specific honours and decorations for their work in the camps, but as a general rule the British and Commonwealth POWs (most of whom were captured in Singapore) were only awarded the Pacific Star, without a clasp, even if they had spent time labouring or imprisoned on the Burma side of the border.[31]

When Burma regained its independence from Great Britain on 4 January 1948, the Union introduced its own suite of awards and decorations. Like those they replaced, these awards recognised gallantry and other outstanding achievements, participation in various campaigns and operations, and long and faithful service.[32] Outside Burma, most of the old imperial medals survived and, either in their original or an updated form, continued to be awarded by the British and Commonwealth governments.[33] However, the British colonial awards specifically related to Burma, like the Burma Police MedalBurma Gallantry Medal and Order of Burma became obsolete. Because of their late introduction, and the disruption to normal state business caused by the Second World War, some are now quite rare and demand high prices from museums and private collectors.[34]

The greatest value of these and the other medals mentioned above, however, is not in their monetary worth but their historical and, in many cases personal, links to a fascinating country at a critical time in its history.

Andrew Selth is Adjunct Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, Australia. His latest book is Secrets and Power in Myanmar: Intelligence and the Fall of General Khin Nyunt (Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2019).


[1] See, for example, Andrew Selth, ‘Colonial Burma, as seen through collectible cards’, Nikkei Asian Review, 11 March 2016; Andrew Selth, ‘Colonial Burma, history and phillumeny’, New Mandala, 24 May 2016; Andrew Selth, ‘Colonial-era pulp fiction portrays “technicolour” Myanmar’, Nikkei Asian Review, 11 July 2016; Andrew Selth, ‘Burma and the Comics, Part 1: Wars and rumours of wars’, New Mandala, 9 August 2016; and Andrew Selth, ‘Burma and the Comics, Part 2: Heroines, heroes and villains’, New Mandala, 10 August 2016.
[2] See, for example, Peter Duckers, British Military Medals: A Guide for the Collector and Family Historian, second edition (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2013), chapter 1.
[3] ‘Phaleristics’ derives from the Greek mythological hero Phalerus, via the Latin phalera, or ‘heroics’.
[4] This essay does not discuss awards for long service or good conduct.
[5] For more details of this period, see Thant Myint-U, The Making of Modern Burma (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
[6] See, for example, Charles Crosthwaite, The Pacification of Burma (London: E. Arnold, 1912).
[7] As Lawrence of Arabia later wrote, ‘war upon rebellion was messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife’. T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (London: Jonathan Cape, 1935), p.193.
[8] In certain circumstances, clasps (or bars) can denote the award of the same medal more than once.
[9] These ships are sometimes described as the ‘Irrawaddy Flotilla’. However, they were moored on the Rangoon (or Hlaing) River. Also, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company only began trading in 1865.
[10] The Burmese capital being at Ava in Upper Burma, the British dubbed the country the Kingdom of Ava. The clasp was only awarded to Europeans, as Indian soldiers had already received the Burma Medal for the same campaign.
[11] B.A.H. Parritt, Red with Two Blue Stripes: The Story of the India General Service Medal 1854, Part One (Tunbridge Wells: Charles A. Lusted, 1974).
[12] In some sources, this list also includes the Naga 1879-80Lushae 1889-92 and N.E. Frontier 1891 clasps. All three were campaigns waged by the British on the India-Burma border.
[13] A rare variant of the Burma 1887-89 clasp reads Burma 1887-9. This clasp was originally produced by the Calcutta Mint, but a second, smaller batch was later required. This was produced by The Royal Mint in London which, for reasons that are not clear, reverted to an older style of writing the dates.
[14] Some sources state that the seated figure in a toga represented General H.T. Godwin, the ‘victor’ of the Second Anglo-Burmese War. See Parritt, p.i.
[15] I.F.W. Beckett, ‘The Campaign of the Lost Footsteps: The pacification of Burma, 1885-95’, Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol.30, Nos.3-4, 2019, p.1013.
[16] The Egypt Medal, issued in 1882 to mark the British invasion of that country, was revived in 1884 and 1885 to mark campaigns along the Nile and in Eastern Sudan.
[17] Some sources also count the VC won by Lieutenant Charles Grant at Thoubal, on the India-Burma border, on 31 March 1891. See, for example, the cigarette card issued by Taddy and Co. in 1901, ‘Victoria Cross Heroes No.32: Burmese War’. The Victoria Cross, first introduced in 1856 to recognise acts of conspicuous courage during the Crimean War, was the British Empire’s highest award for valour.
[18] P.H. Starling, ‘The War in Burma – Two More VCs’, Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps, Vol.155, No.2, June 2009, pp.118-20.
[19] P.H. Starling, ‘War in Burma – The Award of the Victoria Cross to Ferdinand Simeon Le Quesne’, Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps, Vol.155, No.1, March 2009, pp.39-40.
[20] Another VC awardee present in Burma at the time was Gonville Bromhead, who had won his as second-in-command of the mission station at Rorke’s Drift, in south-eastern Africa, when it was attacked by Zulus in January 1879. As a Major with the 24th Regiment of Foot (South Wales Borderers), Bromhead served in Burma from October 1886 to May 1888, thus qualifying for the IGSM, Burma 1885-87 clasp.
[21] Peter Duckers, British Campaign Medals 1815-1914 (Oxford: Shire Publications, 2012), p.22.
[22] See, for example, Matrii Aung Thwin, The Return of the Galon King: History, Law and Rebellion in Colonial Burma (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2011).
[23] Stephen Lewis, The Three Burma Awards (Cheltenham: The Author, 2019).
[24] P.E. Abbott and J.M.A. Tamplin, British Gallantry Awards (London: Nimrod Dix and Co., 1981), p.38. However, Lewis states that 142 were issued. See The Three Burma Awards, p.8. In his book, Lewis reproduces the citations for some of these awards. They cover a wide range of achievements from bravery in action against dacoits to long and faithful service in the Burma Police, Burma Military Police and Fire Brigade.
[25] Some sources state that 180 medals were awarded. See ‘Burma: Orders and Decorations’, The Royal Ark.
[26] According to some sources, only 24 medals were awarded. See ‘Burma: Orders and Decorations’.
[27] Louis Allen, Burma: The Longest War, 1941-45 (London: Dent and Sons, 1984).
[28] It was decided that the award of a VC was not appropriate in his case, as that medal was usually reserved for valour under fire. Philip Davies, Lost Warriors: Seagrim and Pagani’s Burma – The Last Great Untold Story of WWII (Croxley Green: Atlantic Publishing, 2017), p.245.
[29] Eight campaign stars and nine clasps were issued by May 1945. One more campaign star, the Arctic Star, and one more clasp, the Bomber Command clasp, were belatedly added in 2013, after pressure was applied by veterans’ organisations to give greater recognition to those who had fought in these two campaigns.
[30] When medals are not worn, a silver rosette is worn on the ribbon bar to denote the award of a clasp.
[31] N.C. Smith, Australian Military Force Recipients of the Burma Star: World War Two (Melbourne: Mostly Unsung Military History Research and Publications, 2007), p.4.
[32] Details of these awards can be found in Aung Soe, Medals and Thiha Thura Awards (Yangon: Ye Aung Literature House, 2017) (in Burmese).
[33] The Burma Star, for example, continued to be worn by veterans of the campaign. In 1992, a private company in association with the Royal British Legion created a commemorative National Service Medal to recognise those who had served as conscripts for Great Britain from 1939 to 1960. At least one carried a Burma and Malaya clasp.
[34] For example, a group of medals, including the Order of Burma and Burma Gallantry Medal, formerly belonging to Subadar Maji Tu of the Burma Rifles, was sold in 2014 for 26,000 British pounds. See Dix Noonan Webb (DNW) Auctions, London.