The Indian Order of Merit 1837-1947
It is of course well-established that British forces’ personnel on active service can receive a range of awards and decorations for displays of gallantry “in the field”. There is a defined hierarchy of such awards, from the highest “levels” represented by the Victoria Cross, down through a range of others, like the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross, the Military Cross etc., to the lowest levels of wearable awards in the form of Mentioned in Dispatches and Commendation emblems. Many of the “medal” variety were swept away in John Major’s reform of the awards’ system in 1993, so that some highly-regarded and venerable decorations like the Distinguished Conduct Medal, Military Medal and Distinguished Flying Medal have ceased to exist.
But an officially regulated system has not always been in place. In the 18C, medals of all kinds (gallantry and campaign) were simply not awarded in any systematic or official way; there were of course medallic awards, but they tended to be ad hoc or “one off’s”, sometimes given by individuals or societies as much as by royal or central government, and gallantry in battle was not itself officially recognised in this way. The fact that this situation eventually caused concern is evidenced by the plethora of regimental gallantry and merit awards produced during the long French wars of 1793-1815. Regiment after regiment clearly saw the need to recognise the bravery of its own men by instituting its own type of award – though some did not – thus creating a range idiosyncratic medals which are very collected nowadays and often rare.
Not until the Russian or “Crimean” War of 1854-56 did the system change and the government involve itself formally in the rewarding of gallantry. The well-publicised bravery and sufferings of the British Army “in the field” led to demands for some form of official recognition of valour in action. The result was the creation of three new awards – the first such general types in British history. These were the Distinguished Conduct Medal (Dec. 1854), an award for the Other Ranks of the Army, the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (Sept. 1855), an equivalent for the Royal Navy and Royal Marines and finally the Victoria Cross (Jan. 1856), which was available to all ranks. These three medals (with the CGM re-established in 1874) remained the basis of general awards for gallantry for generations.
However, in the Indian Army official recognition and reward came much more quickly. The East Indian Company had led the way with the general award of campaign medals since the late 18C, with for example, the mass award of medals for the Deccan and Mysore campaigns of 1778-84 and 1790-92. These were the first campaign medals to be generally issued to all soldiers (of the EIC Indian regiments) simply for taking part in a campaign and “John Company” continued to produce such awards for its Indian solders right up to the Company’s demise in the wake of the Indian Mutiny in 1858.
As with campaign medals, the EIC, anxious to cement the bonds of loyalty and service which existed between its Indian forces and what was essentially a mercantile concern, also led the way in the formal establishment of medals for gallantry and merit. For this reason, in 1837 the Company announced the institution of two new (and very novel) awards – the Order of Merit and the Order of British India. The latter was essentially a reward for long and meritorious service by native Indian officers; the former was the first regulated medal for gallantry in the British imperial system.
The awards took the form of breast badges in the shape of silver stars with dark blue enamelled centres, worn from ribbons of dark blue with dark red edges with integral clawed brooch bars. The reverses were plain (unless privately named) except for identifying the class of the Order, of which there were three – the 3rd Class in silver and enamel, the 2nd Class in silver and gold and the 1st Class in solid gold. All carried increased pay, increased
pensions and, in the case of the death in action of the recipient, payments to the soldier’s widow if he had one. Such benefits – as well as the visible reward of a soldier’s gallantry – were greatly valued at the time. Recipients had (technically at least) to be in possession of the 3rd Class before they could be advanced to the 2nd Class, and of the 2nd Class before they could be advanced to the First – though incidents are known of men being promoted straight to a higher grade if the circumstances of close combat demanded. There was also a very rare Civil IOM but few were ever awarded and examples are seldom seen.
Re-designated the Indian Order of Merit in 1903 (to avoid confusion with the British Order of Merit established in 1902), the Order remained the only gallantry medal available to Indian soldiers until 1907 when the Indian Distinguished Service Medal (IDSM) was instituted as a “lower tier” of award. When, at the Delhi Coronation Durbar in December 1911, the King-Emperor George V announced that the Victoria Cross would in future be open to Indian soldiers, the IOM was reduced to two classes (designated 1st and 2nd Class), the VC being deemed to replace the old 1st Class. In 1939, the original central wording “Reward of Valor” (sic) was altered to “Reward of Gallantry” and in 1944, the Order was reduced to one class, but with the possibility of second-award Bars being issued – though none ever was awarded. There were also changes in the basic design of the medal in 1945 – just two years before the end of British rule.
The Order was only conferred for conspicuous gallantry in action and was awarded for every theatre in which Indian soldiers were deployed throughout the 19C and after – so that one may find awards not just for action in India (e.g. the Sikh wars or Mutiny) or its immediate frontiers, but for Afghanistan, East and Central Africa, China and every theatre of the two World Wars in which the Indian Army served. All the awards were announced in the Gazette of India and many had published citations; some are very general and bland but others make extraordinary reading.
Perhaps the most famous recipient of the IOM in Victorian times was Kishanbir Nagarkoti of the 5th Gurkhas. He received the 3rd Class IOM for gallantry in the fighting in the Mangiar Pass in Afghanistan in Dec. 1878, was advanced to the 2nd Class for conspicuous gallantry in action at the battle of Charasia in October 1879 and then to the 1st Class conspicuous gallantry in action at Kabul on the 12th December 1879 when he went to the assistance of Lt. Fasken, 3rd Sikhs, who was wounded and lying under hostile fire. Three awards of the IOM in one campaign is some record, but Nagarkoti posed the authorities a considerable problem when as a Subedar, he was again recommended for his outstanding gallantry in a rearguard action during the Hazara campaign of 1888. But there was no class of IOM left to give him – so the authorities hit upon the novel and (as it turned out) unique expedient of awarding Nagarkoti a gold Bar to his gold IOM, reflecting a truly outstanding record of gallantry in action.
It is instructive to look at the numbers of IOMs actually awarded; gallant service around the world in the days of empire and beyond produced what is in fact a comparatively small number of medals –
3rd Class – approx. 2,740 of which over 1,000 for the Mutiny.
2nd Class – only 130 of which approx. 89 for the Mutiny.
1st Class – only 42, of which 35 for the Mutiny.
This is by any standard a remarkably low rate of award, technically making any IOM a rare item and the 1st Class even more so – surely one of the very rarest gallantry awards and (nowadays) commanding appropriately high prices on the collectors’ market.
Despite the fact that the Indian Army was massively increased in size and deployed in just about all the major theatres of war and in the Iraq Rebellion, the number of IOMs is still quite small:
2nd Class – 953 awarded
1st Class – only 20 awarded.
The largest numbers were conferred for service in Mesopotamia (approx. 415 of which 10 were to the 1st Class), France/Flanders (243 of which 4 were to the 1stClass) and Egypt (148), with correspondingly smaller numbers for the more minor theatres.
Compare these figures with over well over 120,000 Military Medals and Bars awarded just between 1916-19.
Interwar Years – only 5 awards of the 1st Class (remembering that these were promotions from the 2nd Class) and 225 of the 2nd were made, mainly for service on the North West Frontier of India and especially for the various Waziristan campaigns.
World War Two :
1st Class – 2 awards
2nd Class – 332 awards
Post 1944 single class – 30
This gives a total of only 364 awards for the entire war, most being granted for Burma, Italy and North Africa. At only twice the number of Victoria Crosses for WW2, this is an astonishingly low number at a time when the Indian Army was expanded literally into the millions, serving all over the world. These figures do not indicate any lack of gallantry on the part of Indian soldiers – but rather the very demanding conditions that were set for this highly-rated award. Compare these IOM award figures with, say, the 10,400 Military Crosses or over 15,000 Military Medals for WW2.
For many years, the collectors’ market had little regard for the IOM and they were not especially expensive at the lower end of the range – perhaps because they were always elusive and difficult to find with the all-important named medal or in a group; it is well-known that Indian medal groups are often found broken up and missing items, many silver awards having gone into the jeweller’s melting pot years ago.
Nowadays, and quite rightly, this comparatively little-awarded gallantry medal is much more highly valued in all classes and for all eras, so that IOM groups (still no easier to find intact!) are reaching very “healthy” prices at auction.
Examples of Citations :
1. Indian Mutiny :
Dafadar Sheikh Hussain, Southern Mahratta Irregular Horse : 3rd Class IOM awarded.
Was foremost in the pursuit at Nurgoond on 1st June 1858. He was surrounded by the enemy, sabring right and left up to within four hundred yards of the gate of the town and with two sowars brought back three armed prisoners. His gallant and fearless conduct in thus dashing
after the flying enemy had the best possible effect on the whole regiment. He also behaved most gallantly at Hulyullee on 30th Nov. 1857 in leading dismounted men into the town.
2. Victorian campaigns :
L/Naik Senu, Corps of Guides : North West Frontier, 1895 : 3rd Class IOM awarded.
For conspicuous gallantry in the action at the Panjkora on 13th April 1895, in having rushed the Lt. Col. Battye’s assistance when the latter was mortally wounded, being the first to reach him and, while exposed to a heavy fire at short range, in assisting to convey him from the field.
3. World War One:
Rifleman Ral Singh, 125th Rifles, Mesopotamia, 1916 : 2nd Class IOM awarded.
In the action at Shaikh Saad on 7th January 1916, when within 300 yards of the enemy’s trenches, he twice returned from the firing line and brought up ammunition from casualties. Also for very great gallantry in digging, under very heavy fire, a shelter for a wounded officer and assisting him into it, freely exposing himself to fire throughout.
4. World War Two
Havildar (later Subadar Major) Bhim Bahadur Sen, 1-9th Gurkhas : North Africa 1943. 2nd Class IOM awarded.
During the attack at Pt. 166 (Medjez el Bab) this NCO displayed most conspicuous and gallant leadership, determination and devotion to duty. On reaching the foremost part of the objective under heavy mortar and machine gun fire, Havildar Bhim Bahadur, who was in command of the forward platoon, found that the heaviest enemy resistance was coming from an uppermost system of trenches some distance further on. Collecting his platoon, he drew his kukri and placing himself at its head, led them straight at these trenches under close and intense fire. Reaching the first enemy post, he rushed it, personally killing all its occupants with his kukri. He then led his men on to the remaining trenches which were quickly overcome by the fierceness and determination of his attack. With cool judgement and continued disregard for his personal safety, he then proceeded under heavy enemy defensive fire to reorganise securely the captured objective against the expected counter-attack.
His determination, leadership and personal gallantry were an inspiring example to his men and were the main factors in enabling the objective to be so quickly and completely secured.
Recommended books :
Deeds of Valour of the Indian Soldier by P.P. Hypher, 2 Vols., Simla 1921 and 1925.
The Indian Order of Merit by Cliff Parrett and Rana Chhina, Turner Donovan, 2010
Reward of Valor (IOM 1914-18) by Peter Duckers, Jade, 1999
Unparalleled Danger, Unparalleled Courage (IOM 1939-45) by C. Peterson, Bookcrafter, 1997.
British Gallantry Awards by P. E. Abbott and J. M. A. Tamplin, London, various eds. 1970-81.