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.
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?