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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David Hume Footsoldier
March 7, 2015 3:23 pm

Excellent post.

The issue has certainly been about for a long time.

The Honours and Awards system is full of perceived inconsistencies, mostly because the system is deliberately not transparent. I have been involved in writing citations for three individuals, two of which were successful and resulted in operational meritorious awards (including an MBE) to a SNCO and a JNCO. In one case I felt the system worked, in the other I felt that while the individual was deserving (that’s why I wrote the citation), he was not my most deserving candidate. Looking at my battalion recently meritorious awards have gone predominantly to SNCOs and LE officers.

I think that the passing of the BEM was a great mistake. I am inclined to think that the current perceived bias towards the Officer Corps is probably unintentional, but that greater effort should be made within the G1 chain to educate commanders and staff in citation writing, and that a degree more of transparency in the process would be welcome.

I would hope that this is something that the new Army Sergeant Major will run with this.

March 7, 2015 6:56 pm

The whole Honours and Awards system needs overhauling. The current committee run system just is not working and stinks of cronyism. We need a replacement that is see-through and so the people being awarded truly deserve what they are being given.
When you look at what is given to civilians it is a joke. No one should receive something for winning at the sport they do as a profession for example.
Most systems in this country need an overhaul to bring them in line with the 21st century.

Think Defence
March 7, 2015 7:17 pm
Reply to  as

As, only a few words to say…

OBE; James Kimberly Corden. Actor. For services to Drama. (London)


March 7, 2015 7:41 pm

That is exactly it.
Services to sport, services to acting vs. charity work and risking your life.
serious overhaul needed.

March 7, 2015 7:55 pm

Oh no we couldn’t possibly overhaul the system or worse still make it transparent – when next you have time run down the professions and reasons in any Honours list. Based on the last one I looked at you will find about 30% are Civil Service seniors being awarded for services to the Civil Service. Its like its part of the job description – “Keep your nose clean and stick with the Service, lad, and there will be a Knighthood in it for you…” Just part of the job.

Red Trousers
Red Trousers
March 7, 2015 11:12 pm

Good article, agree the sentiments.

Not seeking to derail, but there’s another time not rank-based oddity (and I think an element of injustice): pre 89 medals versus post 89 medals.

Case in point: Old Man RT started as an infantry National Serviceman, went Regular about 5 minutes post demob when he saw what civvy life was like, and served on for over 50 years until finally being crowbarred out as a retired Brigadier and RO (Principal) aged 70. A bloody good innings, and in his time he did 19 operational tours. Result? Both flavours of GSM, one MBE, 3 MiDs.

Compare to his louche son (ahem), who wandered around western Europe, mostly shagging or skiing, in the tail end of the Cold War, squeezed in northern Ireland (once, and my childhood in the Province was more dangerous than my tour, what with the ‘Ra blowing up Belfast daily in the early 70s), had a reasonable push in Gulf One, then became a Balkans specialist with the UN and IFOR, but again mostly shagging UN secretaries. Toss in the Golden Jubilee medal, leave after 18 years and there’s a chestful of bits of tin.

Bloody embarrassing come Remembrance Day when I line up behind Old Man RT to lay a wreath at the village memorial. He earned his several times over, mine mostly came up with the rations.

March 8, 2015 3:15 pm

I may not be the best person to comment on this, since mine is an outside perspective, but I feel that one aspect should be raised:

Why would there be such an increase in medals, as RT describes, or a mismatch of ranks, as the post above shows? I think it is also a matter of priorities. After the Cold War ended (or was interrupted) there was considerable pressure to focus on fields other than military, and both funding and numbers of soldiers as well as the percentage of soldiers in the population declined. Most militaries took cues from the Balkans stuff to prepare for some “next war” of interventionism, with the US retaining most of its offensive capabilities. War was suddenly something that did not look like an immediate concern to the public. So, the very dangerous and demanding line of work that the military is did not have the justification that we’d all die if there wasn’t enough people doing that work.
Hence, to me at least it appears logical, if ultimately hollow, to heap especially much praise and merit on the ones who still do it, so they don’t quit. An attempt to incentivise, perhaps.
This is the story I see behind RT’s comment, but it doesn’t justify giving the lower-ranking personell less medals, since ultimately, you need more of the low ranks and they are also more likely to quit since their job is worse. It justifies discontinuing medals even less, because more medals also mean you can dish out more. But there is also the money factor to be considered, since medals cost money to award, and paperwork also needs money to be done (or people who cost money to employ). As there is always a pressure to reduce the cost of the military, it seems quite likely some of that pressure landed on the reward system. Either people who did the paperwork left or were dismissed, or, as DHF perhaps implied, not enough were given the training to write a citation and ultimately only the high-visibility posts of commissioned officers managed to get their medals consistently. Some of the military engagements of the UK winding down probably also plays into it, since barracks leave less room for widely visible acts of individual accomplishment I imagine.
Medals being discontinued also makes sense from the cost/work angle, if there are less things that could become work in the first place, cost would possibly also decrease. And linking back to the issue RT raised with him getting more medals than his father, despite a vast gap in actual deployments, issuing medals to people presumably still costs less than than employing more people.

Hence, my analysis would be that this is yet another outcropping of the changing perception of the importance of military matters in most western countries. Which regrettbly also means it is an adaption to the 21st century, rather than a holdover from the 20th. A messy adaption, which again proves “doing more with less”, which is a society-wide paradigm due to rationalization (i.e. cost reduction and profit maximization where applicable) is not the same as “doing better”.

March 9, 2015 9:24 am

You might also look at disparities in awards given to different cap badges and Services. Some regiments, branches and corps are very good at ensuring that their officers (and generally to a lesser extent) their Other Ranks are rewarded; others put forward recommendations only when there is a blue moon shining and then do not make the effort to play the game by writing them up properly. A study of who gets them by Service and cap badge could be very interesting.

Add to that the attitude within the MOD Civil Service that senior staff should be regularly rewarded, almost regardless of their inability to manage effectively and their propensity to screw up projects, while comparatively junior members are lucky to get a valedictory letter on retirement after a lifetime of dedicated achievement. Far too many medals, decorations and honours are going to repeat offenders, while those who actually do the work, often for a pittance and under very stressful circumstances, are simply ignored.

March 9, 2015 11:34 am

Probably not going to be popular but I’d either….

(a) Bin the lot of ’em. Get rid of the honours system entirely leaving only medals for valour, active service and long service or

(b) Stick up a published price list and let people pay for ’em. I reckon that would make party funding a ‘bit cleaner’ as well.

March 9, 2015 2:01 pm

I just remembered, there was also this old thing by some retired US general prior to WW2:

Among other things, he bemoans the end of the monetary reward system in favor of “awards” which are cheaper. Largely it is polemics, though I don’t doubt there is a lot of profiteering going on at any time.

March 11, 2015 5:23 pm

I’d have been happy with a 640 acre homestead* on retirement, and the US Army could have kept all the ribbons.

*(The US government owns entirely too much land in our western states.)

March 11, 2015 6:53 pm

It’s all about recognition, and resulting pride (not in the deadly sin sense) and respect.

Perhaps going off on a tangent to the main topic, but I had a thought about the higher ranking awards, such as the VC. Is it, perhaps, the military equivalent of the Nobel prize in the strict sense that once one has received it, one is never put forward for any other awards? This is a common observation from Nobel laureates: that no matter what they subsequently achieve (and some achieve a lot long after their nomination) they are never put forward for any other awards for the remainder of their career.

Is this the case with the VC? Because if, as oldreem and others have said, it’s all about recognition, whether for charity work, risking your life, extreme valour of just doing a very good job, then the system should also account for subsequent acts that are worthy of recognition. If the system works at all, this recognition might be taken as evidence of the system’s fairness, because if a VC could be put forward for a lower ranking award at a later date in recognition of further achievements, then the system is probably sufficiently agnostic and unbiased.

March 11, 2015 10:42 pm

I read up on Noel Chavasse and the only other two winners of a bar to go with their VC. Astounding stories , the citations just give a brief outline of the performance of these men but still paint a picture of their actions in such few but vivid words.The rarest bar on earth indeed.
A new book about the winners of the VC from the borough of Tunbridge Wells by Richard Snow with all profits going to Help for Heroes . It tells the stories of the TEN winners from the borough , a place of heroes indeed.