Aim of this guide
This guide focuses on how to interpret the information found on Indian Army medals awarded for service in World War One (WW1). The destruction of Indian WW1 service records and medal index cards has meant that a medal is often the only way to build up a picture of a soldier’s military service.
Large numbers of Indian soldiers were awarded at least two medals, the Victory Medal and British War Medal, for their service in WW1. However, Indian medals are rarely found in complete groups. Over the years the medals have become separated, mainly due to four causes:
- Upon the death of the original recipient, the medals were divided up among family members, usually their children.
- Silver campaign medals like the British War Medal tended to be melted down for their scrap value.
- It was practice for many years on the Indian subcontinent for medal dealers to split up military medals based on their metal content. This has meant that a medal group awarded to an Indian soldier is often in the hands of two or more collectors.
- Many medals were lost or split up during upheavals caused by the Partition of India in 1947.
Condition of Indian Medals
It has been over 90 years since the first campaign medals for service in WW1 were issued to Indian soldiers. Over those 90 years, many medals have suffered considerable amounts of damage when compared to medals awarded to British and other Allied soldiers.
The medal below shows an Allied Victory Medal awarded to a sepoy in the 127th Baluch Light Infantry. Not only is the medal missing the ring through which the ribbon passes, but is very badly worn and the body of Victory has been ground down.
The second medal below shows several cuts to its rim, probably caused by the blade of a local jeweller testing its metal content. Medals can tarnish quickly, making it difficult to determine their composition. These test marks are usually found on the silver British War Medal.
The 1914 Star
The 1914 Star is the most important medal for tracing an Indian soldier’s service history. To be awarded this medal, soldiers would have had to serve in France between 5 August and 22 November 1914. The medal is often referred to as the Mons Star, after the famous battle on the 23 August 1914. This medal is helpful in the following ways:
- A soldier would have joined his unit prior to the outbreak of war.
- Due to his pre-war service, it is easier to work out an enlistment date.
- As he embarked with the first units to leave India for service in France, his movements can be accurately followed by looking at the relevant war diary until the unit became engaged in battle. War diaries can be downloaded for a small fee from The National Archives.
- The medal is impressed with the rank the soldier held when he first entered a theatre of war. The Victory Medal and British War Medal (see below for more on these) show the rank of the soldier when the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918.
Below is the reverse of a 1914 Star to an Indian soldier, Nawab Ali, who was a reservist called back to the regiment on the outbreak of war. By downloading the relevant war diary from The National Archives, you can follow Nawab Ali's movements during the opening stages of the war. He was killed, along with 23 other soldiers from the regiment, by shellfire while waiting in a trench on the opening day of the Battle of Loos, 25 September 1915.
Nawab Ali's name appears on the Neuve Chapelle Memorial, which commemorates over 4,700 Indian soldiers and labourers who died on the Western Front and have no known grave.
The 1914-15 Star was awarded to soldiers who served in a theatre of war outside the qualifying period for the 1914 Star, between 5 August 1914 and 31 December 1915. Far more Indian soldiers were awarded the 1914-15 Star than 1914 Star. This was due to the number of Indian Expeditionary Forces that served in a variety of theatres of war during the qualifying period.
This medal is not nearly as helpful in building up a service history due to the 16-month time span in which a soldier could be awarded it. There is also the added problem that many soldiers were sent as drafts to serve with other units during this period. Despite this, the 1914-15 Star can still be helpful:
- A soldier had to serve in a theatre of war before 31 December 1915 to be eligible.
- By consulting the relevant war diary, it is possible to build up an idea of their likely experiences.
- Depending on the unit (some units suffered heavy casualties, so new recruits were more liable to be sent overseas early in the war and be eligible for a 1914-15 Star), the medal usually indicates enlistment prior to August 1914.
- The rank on the medal is that which a soldier held when they first entered a theatre of war.
British War Medal
The British War Medal had the most complex award criteria of any WW1 campaign medal, but in essence it was awarded for service overseas, though not necessarily in a theatre of war, between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918. This was later extended to allow soldiers who took part in operations in Russia, including many Indian soldiers fighting in modern day Turkmenistan, to qualify up until midnight 1-2 July 1920. The medal is not very helpful in trying to deduce a soldier's service history due to its extensive qualifying period.
- Look at the service number and try to see if it is likely a soldier enlisted pre-war.
- If he did, he is likely to have served with the unit when it first went overseas.
- The medal has the highest rank held by the recipient during service overseas unless they had been demoted for misconduct. By checking it against a 1914 or 1914-15 Star, you can tell if a soldier was promoted.
The Victory Medal is the medal most likely to be encountered, and was awarded to Indian soldiers who served in a theatre of war between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918. Like the British War Medal, this was later extended for soldiers who took part in operations in Russia. The theatre of war didn't necessarily have to be overseas for Indian soldiers, as many qualified for this medal while serving in a number of small campaigns fought on the North-West Frontier of India (present-day Pakistan).
- Look at the service number and work out the enlistment date to see if it is likely a soldier had pre-war service.
- If they did, he is likely to have served with the unit when it first went overseas.
- The medal has the highest rank held by the recipient during service overseas unless he had been demoted for misconduct. By checking it against a 1914 or 1914-15 Star, you can tell if a soldier was promoted.
(Images and text courtesy of Rob Clark / www.researchingww1.co.uk)