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About the Order of the British Empire Medal

The 4 June 1917 saw the official unveiling of a new award  the Order of the British Empire.

Britain was in the thick of the First World War with no prospect of peace, and the entire nation was mobilised for the war effort. The new award met the pressing need to honour the wide-ranging war services of large numbers of civilians, especially in the voluntary sectors. The Order was open to women as well as men. This was the first time women were accorded official recognition for public service.

The first awards were presented by King George V at Ibrox Park in Glasgow on 18 September 1917. Initially, it was intended that the Order should lapse once the process of acknowledging war services was complete, but in 1922 it was made permanent. It was awarded on a huge scale at home and around the Empire some 25,000 recipients by 1921 and brought to an end the practice in Britain of confining honours to the political and military elite.

The Order is awarded in five grades or ranks, with members of the senior two ranks becoming Knights or Dames. The other grades in descending order Commander (CBE), Officer (OBE), and Member (MBE) are awarded without restrictions on number.

The significant step was also taken in 1917 to provide the Order with an associate medal to recognise acts of courage and devotion to duty regardless of social rank. The medal bore the Order's central motif, the seated profile of Britannia surrounded by the legend 'For God and the Empire'. It was discontinued, however, in 1922 and replaced by two new medals: the Empire Gallantry Medal and the British Empire Medal for Meritorious Service.

The designer

The Order's insignia were designed by the artist Elinor Hall (1856-1926). Elinor Hall studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and exhibited widely as a sculptor and enameller. The task of designing the Order's insignia occupied many months during 1916-17, but she finally produced a distinctive and original set of designs which met with the enthusiastic approval of the King and his officials.

In the June 1918 birthday honours list Elinor Hall was made a Commander of the Order (CBE) for war work.