08 July 2010

Dead Man's Penny: memorialising young lads in WW1

In talking about the Great War (1914-18) last term, a student brought a commemorative plaque that her grandmother had received in 1919. Grandma had sent 3 sons to the European battlefields, two of whom were killed by enemy fire and one who returned to Australia minus legs. Here are the documents the student shared, accompanying the commemorative plaque.

We moderns can clearly understanding how devastated the parents and widows felt when they received a pink telegram during WW1, formally notifying the family of the death of their beloved son or husband. The example given in the Australian War Memorial page says rather abruptly: "Officially reported that Number (Br 29) (3003 Pte RB Allen) 13th Battalion previously reported missing now killed in action 14th August 1916. Please inform Mother (Mrs H Allen of Manly) and convey deep regret and sympathy of their Majesties the King and Queen and the Commonwealth Government in loss that she and Army have sustained by death soldier reply paid". Signed Col Luscombe.

Surely something more was needed. The Secretary of State for War, David Lloyd George, set up a committee in 1916 to consider a personal memorial to be distributed to the relatives of soldiers and sailors who fall in the war. By Nov 1916, The Times had already printed an article describing a Memento for the Fallen. State Gift for Relatives.

commemorative plaque, front side

In Aug 1917, the British government offered prizes for a competition to design a suitable small memorial plaque. The area of the ideal plaque was stipulated; it had to be a circle and it had to have space for the person's name. The medal also had to carry the inscription 'HE DIED FOR FREEDOM AND HONOUR'. 800 entries were received from all over the Britain and the Empire, from the Western Front, the Balkan and Middle East theatres of war.

The Times announced the winner in March 1918: Mr Edward Carter Preston of the Sandon Studios Society, Liverpool. Edward Carter Preston's initials are embossed just above the lion's right forepaw. You can see an image of Britannia and a lion, two dolphins representing Britain's sea power and the emblem of Imperial Germany's eagle being torn to pieces by another lion. Britannia was holding an oak spray with leaves and acorns. Beneath this was a rectangular tablet where the soldier's name was cast into the plaque. No rank was to be inscribed; it was specifically intended to show equality in their sacrifice.

Production of the plaques commenced during December 1918, and was originally at a disused laundry in Acton, London. Later the Acton factory closed and production was transferred to the Woolwich Arsenal. Other former munitions factories were also used for production. I wonder if the grieving parents who received the plaque for their dead son(s) cared that the factories were once armament manufacturers.

There was no way of knowing how many lads would die by the time the war ended. The original estimate had been for 800,000 plaques, but nearly double that were eventually produced.

tribute from King George V

This bronze plaque was sent to the next of kin of every British Empire citizen who lost his life as a result of Great War service (defined as being from Aug 1914 until April 1920). The plaques measured 121mm and were very heavy (333gms); they were referred to by the soldiers themselves as the 'Dead Man's Penny'. They were posted to the family, protected by a stout brown cardboard folder.

Two documents accompanied the plaque. The first was a brief letter-tribute from King George V. The second was a parchment scroll, headed by the Royal Coat of Arms. The scroll had one passage written in old English script: 'He whom this scroll commemorates was numbered among those who, at the call of King and Country, left all that was dear to them, endured hardness, faced anger, and generally passed out of sight of men by the path of duty and sacrifice, giving up their own lives that others may live in freedom. Let those who come after see to it that his name be not forgotten.' The man’s name and unit was inscribed on the bottom.

It was hoped that the parents of each dead soldier could derive some comfort from prominently displaying the plaque next to a photo of their son and his medals; a small domestic shrine in their lounge room. The accompanying letter-tribute from King George V and the parchment scroll could be framed up and placed on the shrine as well.

parchment scroll

One question has not been answered. Great War Forum suggested that "Deadman's Penny" was a slightly derogatory colloquialism used by the soldiers themselves for the bronze commemorative plaque, a payment for a death for the next of kin. And the Western Front Association noted there were some relatives who returned the pennies to the Australian Government in protest, as they felt it was insulting and it did not replace their loved one's life. Is there any way of us knowing, in 2010, how the generation of grieving parents felt about the commemorative plaque in 1920?


columnist said...

Strange that I should read your post today, having just last night watched "Taking Chance", with Kevin Bacon. It is based on the (true) story of repatriating the remains of a soldier (Chance Phelps) killed in Iraq, to his family in Wyoming. I'm not quite sure if there was a message in the film. For me it reinforced the fact that war is a terrible thing and not to be entered into lightly. It showed how the army and Americans honour those killed in this conflict. I suppose you draw your own conclusions. I suppose at least there is a more personal interaction with the families of those killed, but the numbers are much smaller, and in their way the government tried to address that with the medal, and the letter from the king.

Hels said...

columnist, although I have written about "war memorials" many times (see in the Labels section of this blog), this story haunts me still.

The number of deaths in the First World War was unprecedented and beyond counting. Dead soldiers were hurriedly buried on the battlefields by their comrades, wherever they fell in action.

Repatriation of the bodies back to all British Empire countries after the war ended would have been so intolerably expensive for the tax payers, Parliament permanently banned it. And there was also an ethical consideration. Wealthy families might well have afforded to bring their OWN sons' bodies home; the majority of ordinary working families couldn't afford repatriation nor could they afford a pilgrimage to the battle fields.

I wonder if the permanent ban on repatriating British Empire (and later Commonwealth) bodies home was lifted for Korea, Vietnam etc.

Hermes said...

Never heard of it before. You can't imagine our Parliament reading out say 5000 names now on a single day. Modern or ancient, war is such a waste.

LondonGirl said...

A very interesting, and moving, post.

"I wonder if the grieving parents who received the plaque for their dead son(s) cared that the factories were once armament manufacturers."

A good case of swords to ploughshares, I'd have thought?

LondonGirl said...

A very interesting, and moving, post.

"I wonder if the grieving parents who received the plaque for their dead son(s) cared that the factories were once armament manufacturers."

A good case of swords to ploughshares, I'd have thought?

ChrisJ said...

Excellent post.

I just read an interesting article about the difference between teaching military history in times of war (U.S.-Iraq, especially) as opposed to in times of peace.


the foto fanatic said...

My 17 year-old nephew has, just a couple of weeks ago, left Brisbane to join the Australian Army. He will be training at Kapooka for a couple of months, and then could be deployed anywhere.

I don't know quite what to think of his choice, other than I realize it is his alone to make. We need an army (unfortunately) and we need people to serve in it. It is dangerous work. I am proud of him and fearful for him at the same time.

I don't think that we can ever pay too much homage to those who serve in this way.


Hels said...

spot on! The Chronicle Review article said "Yet the reality of teaching in wartime is that war has touched the families of many of our students, and it is a tragic error to think that they have not experienced the staggering blow of loss and personal sacrifice".

Even with the World War One lectures, I asked the students if anyone had fathers, grandfathers and uncles involved in either world war. I think every single one of my mature-aged students had grown up with a grandmother who grieved all her life or sepia-coloured pictures of an uncle who spent years in hospital and was never really "right in the head" afterwards.

foto fanatic,
I understand your great pride and your rumbling fear. 17 is still a child! He is too young to sign a contract, too young to vote and too young to understand the future consequences of his decisions. Teenagers are notorious for thinking that "long term planning" means what they will be doing next Saturday night.

My problem is not with endlessly honouring those who serve the country. But if I was the army, I would insist that a volunteer (or conscript) be an adult.

Sometimes the memorialising function is given to a shady road where each tree was given a plaque dedicated to the name of a local lad who went off to war eg Ballarat’s Avenue of Honour and Arch of Victory. The Avenue of Honour consisted of 3,771 trees planted at regular intervals of 12 metres along 22km of Ballarat-Burrumbeet Rd. The Arch of Victory marked the beginning of the Avenue at its eastern end, officially opened by Prince of Wales straight after World War One ended.

LondonGirl said...

One thing I meant to add - it certainly wasn't only young lads who fought and died in the First World War.

My great-grandfather, George Luxton, was born in 1865. He joined the Royal Engineers at the age of 18, in 1883, and served for 20 years, retiring in 1903. He moved from Chatham (where the Royal Engineers were based) to Liverpool with his wife and daughter, and added three more daughters to the family, and opened a Chandler's Shop.

Within a fortnight of War being declared, he volunteered to move from the Reserve back to Active Service. He went back to Chatham in September 1914, leaving his wife to run the shop, and bring up their 4 young daughters.

He survived the war, and got promoted from Sergeant to Sergeant Major by the end of it, but it can't have been easy, re-joining at the age of 49 and serving another 4.5 years.

Hels said...

Londongirl, you have to admire a man who believes he can serve his nation at 49. Very middle aged, yet he wanted to do His Bit.

If I was his wife, I would have said "George darling, there are many heroic ways to serve. You could work in a military hospital or you could be a chef for the soldiers. But please please please do not jump out of a tank or run from the trenches into the Germans'/Turks' machine guns."

LondonGirl said...

He was a Royal Engineer, so in theory, less likely to get shot at. From 1914 to 1916 he was in France, engineeing things (mostly carts and wheels, I think, his speciality was as a wheelwright).

then in early 1916, he was sent to Dublin, to train other RE recruits. He was in a camp on the Curragh race course. And then, of course, came the Easter Uprising, so he did get shot at, after all.

But he lived to tell the tale, dying in the mid 1930s (before my Dad was born).

John Hopper said...

As you say everyone tends to have a story to tell of family members caught up in the First World War. My great uncle was in the battle of the Somme and survived, though a bullet wizzed past his face and killed his best friend.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post.

My paternal great-grandfather was in the Munster Fusiliers and fought alongside the Anzacs at Gallipoli where he was killed. I have his condolence letter signed by Lloyd-George and The King.

My maternal grandfather, fought in Belgium. he was a coal miner and his role in Belgium was to tunnel behind the enemy lines and set explosives. Sebastian faulks recounts the story of the miners in his novel Birdsong. My grandfather was held prisoner of war for 3 years and treated appallingly.

He returned home an atheist and a socialist. he was scathing about the Dead Man's penny. he said that is how much value the King and Government placed on the Tommy. generals, who never went near the front line, recived honours and gold medals.

My grandfather was promised a land fit for heroes. Instead he had the grinding poverty and virtual slave labour of coal mining. He joined the Jarrow marches during the general Strike.

I know how much his influence has had on me in developing my own values. I did my degrees in social policy and social history and i have never stopped reading/researching. I am a volunteer visitor for the Royal British Legion and I get so much from just sitting and listening to these wonderful old soldiers recount their experiences.

LondonGirl said...

"he said that is how much value the King and Government placed on the Tommy. generals, who never went near the front line, recived honours and gold medals."

that wasn't true, though. Quite a few general died during fighting in the First World War!

Examples include Kitchener, who died at sea, 3 generals who died in a week at the Battle of Loos (General Wing, General Capper, General Thesiger) and General Hamilton, who died in 1914 at the 1st Battle of Ypres.

General Lomax died in 1915 from shell fire, as well.

Hels said...

Juliana, isn't it amazing how powerful an influence your grandfather had. Not father, but grandfather!

My gandfather was very keen to enlist in WW1, even though he was underage. He too returned to civvy life as a socialist and a pacifist, and worked hard for the labour movement for the rest of his life.

Your grandfather was promised "a land fit for heroes"... hmm that was a depressing and cynical expression :( My next post will be on the Depression and its aftermath, when life for the working class became truly horrible.

jeff said...

My employer has found one of these dead mans pennys and would like to return it to the family.
The name on the penny is Gorge Henry Rawling.

Hels said...

I am glad you wrote.

The Imperial War Museum in London was founded in 1917, one of its functions was to be a memorial to those who had died and suffered in the First World War. The Museum archives have tons of material for people doing research, of their own family or of others.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Hells.
I will contact them soon as possible.
I have got in touch with lots of Rawleys on Face book but no luck yet.
I know how thrilling it is to have something back in the family which has been lost as photos of my Grandfather who fought at the battle of the somme were lost for seventy years and remained a mystery as to wher they went.
My nice recieved them one day via Face book and now there are untold copys of them which have been distributed and copyed by us all so that it will not happen again.
It is so important to keep alive the memories of these brave men.
Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

If anyone has information about William Herbert Shaw, British Soldier killed in action 5/4/17 in France, please contact me at e-mail address: besemperfi@juno.com.
Thank You.

Hels said...


I really hope someone reads your request for information and responds.