Military Honours and Awards


Older British readers will recall that as part of the 1993 overhaul of the Honours and Awards system the British Empire Medal (BEM), both civil and military, was discontinued and the numbers of MBEs awarded were increased accordingly.  In 2012 the Government decided to reinstate the BEM (civil), to improve recognition of ‘unsung heroes’ doing voluntary or community work who might not make the cut for an MBE.

Prior to 1993 the BEM (military) was awarded to ‘other ranks’ equivalent to Chief Petty officer, Staff Sergeant, Flight Sergeant and below.

The MBE (military) was awarded to commissioned officers up to the rank of Lieutenant Commander, Major and Squadron Leader and to Warrant Officer equivalent ranks.

In the final two lists before the change (Birthday 1992 and New Year 1993) 31% of the combined total of awards went to commissioned officers; 14% to warrant officers; and 55% (the BEMs) to the junior ranks.  That sounds not an unreasonable split.  These figures are derived from the original London Gazette lists – detailed table at the end of this article.  (For brevity, Army ranks only are quoted in the text below.)

In subsequent years the percentage of MBE awards to commissioned officers steadily increased at the expense of the junior (ex-BEM) ranks.  Julian Brazier MP first raised a concern in a 1999 article (still on his website) titled “Who will Defend the Defenders?”, pointing out that the proportion of awards to commissioned officers had already risen from a third to over a half by the 1997 New Year list.  By 2014 (Birthday 2014 plus New Year 2015) the 1992 percentages had more than reversed:  the commissioned officers’ share had more than doubled, from 31% to 71%;  warrant officers’ had risen marginally, from 14% to 17%;  while the junior ranks’ share had fallen by over three quarters, from 55% to 12%.  The figures vary between the three services:  the Army is the most extreme case, where the junior ranks’ share has collapsed from 59% to a mere 7%.   (I have quoted percentages throughout because the overall numbers of awards have decreased over the period, partly at least reflecting the reductions in armed forces manpower.)

I have raised this three times with the MoD, via my excellent MP John Glen.  Unfortunately Julian Brazier had become Minister for Reserves, so this was outside his remit.  Both substantive replies came from the US of S, Lord Astor of Hever.  The first attempt, following publication of the Birthday 2014 list, produced a response best described as patronising, platitudinous and elevating the non sequitur to an art form.

Some examples, with comments:

“The award of the BEM ceased in 1993 but was reinstated by the Prime Minister to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 to recognise the dedication and hard work that so many individuals provide to their local communities. The significant change from the original BEM takes it out of the Armed Forces ambit.”

(1) A good number of Armed Forces personnel, mainly ‘other ranks’, do a great deal of community work within garrisons, stations and their local communities, besides charity fundraising;

(2) the criteria for military MBEs (and formerly BEMs) are/were probably different from the civil equivalents.

“Therefore, when the military Chiefs of Staff were given the opportunity to reintroduce the BEM, they decided not to do so.”

One wonders how and by whom they were briefed; whether they were made aware of the MBE and former BEM statistics;  whether they considered (or were allowed to consider) reintroduction of the BEM on separate military criteria;  indeed, whether they were even interested in the issue as it related to junior ranks.  Regrettably, they seem to have missed a trick.

“Military Medals (sic) are instituted to recognise service for gallantry, long service, service on qualifying operations, and commemorative purposes.”

If this definition is intended to cover the military divisions of Orders it is incomplete, since these, at all levels, are awarded for meritorious service rather than purely time served; if not it is irrelevant.

“It may help if I explain that junior ranks … are eligible for the … MBE”  

We know that – it’s the whole basis of the case!

“…and are treated equally to any other ranks.”

Procedurally doubtless so, but questionable in terms of outcome compared with 1992. Maybe there are insufficient nominations;  but it must be difficult to write up say a Corporal to compete on level terms with recommendations for Majors.

“An increasing number of junior servicemen receive the MBE…”

Unless he’s comparing with 1992 when the number was zero because they received BEMs, this is 100% untrue.

“…and the proportion and breakdown of state awards by rank is a subject looked at by the independent scrutineer on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen.”

One can only speculate as to how far back his/her records or comparisons go;  certainly not to 1992, it would seem.  Or just asleep on the job.

“As the MBE is frequently awarded to recognize service over a protracted period of time…”

Most Majors being honoured (except LE) have served a good deal less than 22 years.

“…you will not be surprised to find that many of the Officers receiving an award have been commissioned from the ranks…”

This applied also in 1992, so does not explain the massive proportional reduction in MBE awards to junior ranks since then.

“other ranks, but not officers, can be recognised by the award of the Long Service & Good Conduct Medal and the Meritorious Service Medal.” 

This too was the case in 1992, so is irrelevant to the comparison.  (Incidentally, I believe an officer can be considered eligible for the award of the LS&GCM if 12 or more of the required 15 years of his or her service have been in the ranks.)

“I am not at liberty to disclose the figures at this stage, but I am sure you will be reassured at the proportion of MBEs going to other ranks, or personnel commissioned from the ranks, in the Queens (sic) Birthday Honours List 2014.”  

(1) Eh??  His letter was dated 28 July;  the Birthday 2014 list was published on 13 June and the figures from it were quoted in my original letter.  Did he perhaps mean New Year 2015?

(2) It is not possible to tell from the published list which officers have been commissioned from the ranks – even if this were relevant to the 1992-2014 comparison.

After this last unctuous assurance the New Year 2015 list (published on 31 Dec 2014) showed yet further decline, with the former BEM rank range MBE total reducing from 11 in the Birthday 2014 list to 6 (Army the worst, from 5 to 1).  Having failed to get a satisfactory answer on statistics via a written PQ, I wrote via my MP to the US of S again.

The second response added complacency to the mix:

“Please let me start by assuring” [me] “that the Government holds the professionalism, courage and contribution of all those who serve, and have served in the Armed Forces in the very highest regard.”

Well, that’s nice to know.  Reminds me of “I thank you from the heart of my bottom”.

“The Ministry of Defence (MOD) has always set the bar for MBEs and all state honours high and does not regard Honours as being a quota to fill each year.”

(1) The bar wasn’t too high for SSGTs and below up to 1993;

(2) nobody mentioned or implied quotas – the point is about proportions.

“If the single Services do not judge they have sufficient citations that are suitably meritorious then they do not recommend all the potential awards they could.”

(1) This comes back to the point (made by Julian Brazier in 1999) that it is nigh on impossible to have a level playing field with a single set of criteria for all ranks from  Private to Major;

(2) perhaps because of this, plus recent statistics, commanding officers have concluded that it’s pointless running MBE submissions for junior ranks.

“It is not a business that is entered into lightly or done quickly. A great deal of scrutiny and debate is involved.”

But of course.  Pure Sir Humphrey.

[Repeats verbatim the paragraph in his previous letter starting “Military Medals”] Note that “meritorious” in the last-but-one quote above does not appear in that definition.

“The Department has no plans to extend eligibility for the BEM to Service personnel.”

Or to review the rank distribution of MBEs, presumably.

“The highly competitive nature of the MOD awards system means that the charitable/community works recognised by the BEM are often the tipping point in raising an individual from the ‘endorsed but not sufficiently high up the list’ to ‘endorsed and recommended for an MBE’ …”

A perfectly reasonable weighting factor, but for the fact that so few junior ranks even get to first base that “often” almost defies imagination.

“…so we are entirely comfortable with the fact that our servicemen and women are getting appropriate recognition for their voluntary and community works.”

(1) But not for meritorious or outstanding service relative to their rank;

(2)  How nice to be “entirely comfortable”;

(3)  Surely one of the politest ways ever of saying “F*** Off”.

I am not suggesting that this inversion of the pyramid has occurred as a deliberate act of policy, either within the Services or elsewhere;  rather it seems to be a classic case of the law of unintended consequences asserting itself over time.  Today’s commanding officers who make recommendations may not even have heard of the old BEM (military).  But to the ‘other ranks’ at least it all looks, or smells, like the hierarchy looking after its own – especially in the Army.

What really pisses me off (although I’m old enough to realise I shouldn’t expect anything better) is the MoD’s wilful refusal to address the question.

Detailed figures in the table below.

Note:  Current RAF figures may reflect the fact that their other ranks tend to serve to higher ages than those of other services.

Ranks 1992 2014 1992 2014 1992 2014 1992 2014
Commissioned officers 25 14 64 69 29 14 115 97
Fleet CPO, WO 6 4 25 13 21 6 52 23
Former BEM ranks 34 5 125 6 43 6 201 17
Totals 65 23 214 88 93 26 368 137
Ranks 1992 2014 1992 2014 1992 2014 1992 2014
Commissioned officers 38.5% 60.9% 29.9% 78.4% 31.2% 53.8% 31.3% 70.8%
Fleet CPO, WO 9.2% 17.4% 11.7% 14.8% 22.6% 23.1% 14.1% 16.8%
Former BEM ranks 52.3% 21.7% 58.4% 6.8% 46.2% 23.1% 54.6% 12.4%
Totals 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0%
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