The British Empire Medal was introduced on 29 December 1922. This medal succeeded the Medal of the Order of the British Empire from 1907. The medal is linked to the Order of the British Empire that was introduced in 1917. In the period until the decolonisation a British medal was granted in the entire British Commonwealth and the colonial empire, so also in the Dominions Canada, Australia and New Zealand. After World War II a number of countries introduced their own medals and orders. Yet some countries still award the British Empire Medal. These include Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Papua New-Guinea, the Bahamas and the Cook Islands. The United Kingdom itself no longer awards these medals.
Wearers can use the letters BEM behind their name. There are three types of this silver medal:
The British Empire Medal in the Civil Division
This medal is worn on a dark pink ribbon with two grey side bands. The wearers of this “Medal of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for Meritorious Service” or in short the “British Empire Medal”, use the letter BEM behind their name. Their full name is engraved on the back of the medal.
The British Empire Medal in the Military Division
This medal is worn on a dark pink ribbon with two grey side bands and a grey middle band. The rank, first name, last name and service number are engraved on the back.
The British Empire Medal for Gallantry
The wearers of this “Medal of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for Gallantry” or in short the “Empire Gallantry Medal”, use the letters EGM behind their name. Since 1957 two crossed oak leaves are worn on the medal’s ribbon and the baton.
If the medal is awarded multiple times a silver buckle is worn on the ribbon. Apart from the ribbon all these medals are the same. The grey middle band was introduced in 1938 and in that year the colour of the ribbon was also changed from purple into pink.
In 1940 the George Cross and the George Medal were introduced to awards to courageous civilians. From then onwards, the British Empire Medal was awarded for courage so remarkable that the George Medal could be awarded. In 1940 the authorities requested the wearers of the British Empire Medal, to the extent that this had been awarded for gallantry, to exchange their medal for a George Cross. It was only in 1977 that the wearers of the much more prestigious Albert Medal, e.g. for rescue operations at sea, and the Edward Medal, for risky rescue operations in mining shafts, were requested to exchange their medals for the George Cross. Not every wearer responded to this request
In World War II 1236 were granted, with only 34 for gallantry.
The front side of the solid silver medal shown Britannia under a sun with rays. The edge inscription is “FOR GOD AND THE EMPIRE” with under that either “FOR MERITORIOUS SERVICE” or “FOR GALLANTRY” .
The other side of the medal shows the royal monogram.
During the short reign of Edward VIII no medals were made. Under the crown and monogram on the reverse side is the text “INSTITUTED BY KING GEORGE V” within a circle of four heraldic lions.
The medal is attached to the ribbon with a finely turned silver buckle.
The medal is worn on the left side of the chest or as a bow on a lady’s left shoulder. On uniforms a baton is worn to which the silver oak leaves in a smaller version can be attached. On a dress suit or a dress uniform, specifically a “Mess dress” the medal can also be worn in miniature.
In 2004 a report by Sir Hayden Phillips about the Order of the British Empire was discussed by a committee of the British House of Commons. The members of the House of Commons advocated a change of name: “Order of British Excellence” would be better suited to this time. The government did not adopt these recommendations. The recommendation by Sir Hayden to introduce, like in the European countries (and in Canada) a lapel badge (a buttonhole decoration) for the lapels was introduced in 2007. The British government did not choose a system with rosettes and silver and gold braiding like in The Netherlands, but introduced a rosette that can be worn by all classes and for all medals.