The World War I Memorial Plaque

Mr QM, Going Postal
The Memorial Plaque was issued after the First World War to the next-of-kin of all British and Empire service personnel who were killed as a result of the war

As 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War 1, I thought I would start off with the first in a series of related articles. No doubt we will see more as the year progresses and I have another in the pipeline about medals (if I can pull myself away from not reading the comments). This article gives a little detail about the Memorial Plaque which in itself wasn’t a medal for the servicemen but a memorial for the next of kin of those who were killed.

The idea of a memorial plaque was first discussed in 1916 and a committee was formed in August 1917 with members being selected from the House of Commons, the House of Lords and a number of government departments. The Chairman of the committee was the Secretary of the War Office, Sir Reginald Brade MP. In August 1917 a competition to design was launched for anyone to enter who could put forward a suitable design for a bronze plaque to record the name of a fallen British or Dominion Forces serviceman or woman. The plaques would subsequently were awarded to the next of kin of all British and Empire in the Navy and in the Army (there was no Royal Air Force at the time) who were killed as a result of the Great War.

The judging of the designs entered into the competition was carried out by the main committee and a sub-committee comprising the Directors of London’s National Gallery, the Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Keeper of the Department of Coins and Medals at the V&A. The V&A holds a specimen copy of the winning design where the name is replaced by the words ‘VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM SPECIMEN MCMXIX’

The competition was won by the sculptor and medallist Edward Carter Preston from Liverpool with his design under the pseudonym of ‘Pyramus’ and he received a prize of £250. His design included an image of Britannia holding a trident and standing with a lion. The designer’s initials ECRP, added after winning the competition, appear above the lion’s front paw. In her outstretched left hand Britannia holds an olive wreath above the rectangular tablet bearing the deceased’s name cast in raised letters. You will note that there is no rank as it was considered that there was no rank in death and no distinction between sacrifices made by different individuals. Below the name tablet, to the right of the lion, is an oak and acorn spray. The plaque also features two dolphins symbolising Britain’s sea power and at the bottom a second lion is killing a German Imperial eagle. Around the picture the legend reads ‘HE DIED FOR FREEDOM AND HONOUR’. In later productions, a space was added before the word ‘HE’ so that the letter ‘S’ could be added to commemorate those women who were killed, which numbered approximately 600.

The plaques, all individually cast, were initially produced from 1919 at a factory 54/56 Church Road, Acton, London W3. The early Acton-made plaques did not have a number stamped on them but later ones have a number stamped behind the lion’s back leg and the obverse was blank. In December 1920 manufacture was shifted to the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. Plaques manufactured at the Royal Arsenal can be identified by a circle containing the letters ‘WA’ on the reverse and by a number stamped between the tail and leg.

Unlike campaign medals, memorial plaques were not distributed to next of kin automatically, the had to be applied for using a specific form (W.5080) which was sent out by the records offices to the next of kin of the deceased from 1919 and into the 1920s. The form had to be completed and signed by the next of kin and countersigned by a magistrate or a minister. The memorial plaques were not available to those who had been court martialled and executed or to the wives of the deceased who had remarried, although other family members could apply for them in this case.

The plaques were issued in a small decorated cardboard box along with a commemorative scroll and a letter from King George V although sometimes the letter and scroll were sent prior to and separate from the plaque. The plaques became commonly known as a ‘Dead Man’s Penny’ or a ‘Death Penny’ because of the similarity in appearance to the somewhat smaller penny coin in circulation at the time as Britannia was on the reverse of the coin. They were also called a ‘Death Plaque’ or a ‘Widow’s Plaque’ for obvious reasons.

Initially, the memorial plaques were not well received by the public. Some thought them morbid and for relatives of the deceased, the memory of losing someone in the war was still painful. Eventually, many next of kin and families applied for the plaques and eventually 1,355,000 were produced and distributed and this took until the 1930s to be completed. Once the families received the plaques, some mounted them in frames along with pictures of the deceased, their medals and the commemorative scroll. Others mounted them on gravestones and some just left them in a drawer. Unusually, plaques are still being occasionally dug up from Victorian drains where they have been used to seal the drain as the dimensions of both being 5 inches, make a perfect fit.

© Mr QM 2018