So often on a battlefield tour, people are fascinated at the World War One Memorial Plaque, often better known as The Dead Man’s Penny or sometimes The Widows Penny, that was given to the family of the fallen in World War One, and so often the comment ‘I can remember my Gran or a Great Aunt having one of them’ but sadly it has since been lost.
The history of the Dead Man’s Penny began in 1916 with the realisation by the British Government that some form of an official token of gratitude must be given to the fallen servicemen’s family.
The huge casualty figures were not expected in 1914 so no gesture of recognition was required; but in 1917, the government announced a competition to design a suitable plaque with a prize of two hundred and fifty pounds. There were over eight hundred entries from all over the Empire and even from the troops on the Western Front.
Edward Carter-Preston of Liverpool was the winner – an artist who was commissioned to produce a series of sculptures for the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral.
The selected design was a disk cast in bronze gun-metal, which incorporated the following; 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 is holding an oak spray with leaves and acorns. Beneath this was a rectangular tablet where the deceased individual’s name was cast into the plaque.
No rank was given as the intention was to show equality in their sacrifice. On the outer edge of the disk, the words, ‘He died for freedom and honour’ were made at a factory in Acton from 1919, then later at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich from December 1920.
A scroll, made of slightly darkened parchment headed by the Royal Coat of Arms accompanied the plaque with a carefully chosen 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 danger, and finally passed out of sight of men by the path of duty and self-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’
Production of the plaques and scrolls, which were supposed to be financed by German reparation money, began in 1919 with approximately 1,150,000 issued.
They commemorated those who fell between 4 August 1914 and 10 January 1920 for home, Western Europe and the Dominions whilst the final date for the other theatres of war or for those who died of attributable causes was 30 April 1920