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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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. This ‘pacification’ campaign was, as always in such circumstances, ‘messy and slow’. 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.) 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. Even so, during the pacification campaign that followed the fall of Mandalay, three Victoria Cross (VC) medals were won for conspicuous gallantry. 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. 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. Surgeon-Major Owen Lloyd, also of the RAMC, won his VC at Fort Sima on 6 January 1893, on the Kachin Hills expedition.
The 1854 IGSM was the first standardised area medal to which various clasps could be added as required or earned. 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. 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). 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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). 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.
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. 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. However, the British colonial awards specifically related to Burma, like the Burma Police Medal, Burma 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.
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).