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MEMORIAL PLAQUE, ‘DEAD MAN’S PENNY’ – FIRST WORLD WAR (WW1)

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MEMORIAL PLAQUE, ‘DEAD MAN’S PENNY’ – FIRST WORLD WAR (WW1)

By Tinyeko Captain Ndhlovu, Curator: Insignia, Memorial Plaques, Postal History, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History

Introduction

This article is a significant contribution to the military numismatic medallion known as the memorial plaque, which was introduced by the British Empire to honour her fallen military forces and service personnel during the First World War (WW1), 1914-1918. It also describes the obverse and reverse design features of the memorial plaque.

Historical context 

More than one million soldiers of the British Army alone were killed during WW1 on the Western Front, France (Europe) and around the world. It was estimated that more than 250 000 of South Africans of all races voluntarily served their country and king in assistance to the British Empire and military forces during the WW1. During the middle of WW1, British communities made a request to the British Empire and King George V that there must be something that marks the respect and serve as a memorial for the WW1 heroes. As a result, in 1917, a competition was held throughout the United Kingdom regions, via local newspapers and theatres in London regarding the preserving of memories and events of people in the War. About 800 entries were received in the competition to what would be known and used as the ‘Memorial/Death Plaque’ (please see figures 1 & 2 below). The winning designer of the competition was Mr Edward Carter Preston (1885-1965), a renowned English artist, sculptor and medallist. Preston designed a bronze medallion, what was known to the next-of-kin as a Memorial Plaque, ’Death Plaque’, ‘Dead Man’s Penny’, or ‘Widow’s Penny,’ since it y resembled an old-fashioned penny/coin. However, the production of the memorial plaque only started in 1919. 

The Royal Arsenal Building 10 in London was converted into what was known as the ‘Plaque Factory’ (see figure 5). Post-WW1 (1919-20s), the British Empire presented the memorial plaque(s) medallion as a token of a reminder of the heroes who died for freedom and honour. As a result, more than one million memorial plaques were made and sent to the next-of-kin of the service personnel who were killed in WW1.

The Objective of the Memorial Plaque

It normally accompanied a scroll and the King’s message, which was made to memorialize those that offered their lives and to acknowledge their sacrifices. They were issued to the immediate next-of-kin of the serviceman/woman who was killed when serving the British and Empire armed forces during the First World War. It also serves as a physical token of remembrance of a lost loved one.

Figure 1: Memorial plaque of Private WILLIAM MURPHY, 12th South African Infantry who died in service when returning home during WW1 (Image Source: DNMMH Display).

One memorial plaque was made for each soldier, airman, sailor, nurse and service personnel who died in WW1. It was estimated that more than 1 330 000 (one million, three hundred and thirty thousand) of the bronze memorial plaques were made. As a result, King George V issued memorial plaque packages to the next-of-kin. Normally, memorial plaques are privately framed and placed on sideboards or mounted on walls. 

Specifications of the Memorial Plaque:

Military numismatics: Medallion

Material: Bronze 

Shape: round-shaped or circular design

Size: 120 mm in diameter.  

Weight: 30 grams

Official name: Memorial Plaque 

Other names: ‘Dead Plaque’, ‘Dead Man’s Penny’, ‘Widow’s Penny’, ‘Penny you did not want to receive’ since it looks like an old fashioned penny/coin.

Year of Production: 1919-1920s

Factory: The Royal Arsenal, Building No. 10, London, Plaque Section

Designer: Mr Edward Carter Preston

Issued by: His Majesty King George V 

Recipients: An immediate next-of-kin of the person who was killed serving with the British and Empire Army forces during the WW1. 

Description of the Memorial Plaque:

 Reverse side: Plain

Obverse of Memorial Plaque Medallion: The design features include: the icon of Britannia viewing to her left and holding a laurel wreath in her left hand. Below the laurel wreath is a rectangular panel where you will locate the commemorated service-man/woman’s name (please see figures 1-2). In her right hand, she is holding a trident (a symbol of Britain’s sea authority) with two dolphins each viewing Britannica (on her left and right sides). A roaring lion stands in front of her, while a lion cub is biting the German Imperial eagle under its feet. The inscription on the memorial plaque reads as follows: ‘HE DIED FOR FREEDOM AND HONOUR’. One can query if the spelling of the word honour as ‘HONOVR’ on the memorial plaque was an error.

Globally, the rarest memorial plaques are those inscribed with the words ‘SHE DIED FOR FREEDOM AND HONOUR.’ It is estimated that there are only about 600 examples of these.

Figure 2: SELLO MOKUENA (driver), Cape Auxiliary Horse Transport Company (CAHT), died in service on 10 July 1919 (Image source: DNMMH WW1 Western Front, Display).    

In South Africa, the rare ones are those of the native/black service personnel who served on the Western Front in France during WWI. I have more than two years of experience working with the Memorial Plaque collections. I had an opportunity to see numerous memorial plaques for whites and a few memorial plaques for Blacks.

The deaths of WW1 servicemen/women after 1918, right through to 1919-1921 were also included and accepted as war-related. For example, there is a memorial plaque for Sello Mokuena(HT4346), a driver under the Cape Auxiliary Horse Transport Company (CAHT) on the Western Front in France during WW1. He died in service (DOS) on 10 July 1919.  Sello Mokuena’s next-of-kin received the memorial plaque package. It consisted of a bronze medallion memorial plaque with the service personnel’s name, a scroll and the King’s message (please see figures 2-6). 

The final version of the scroll was re-crafted by Dr Montague Rhodes James, Provost of King’s College Cambridge with a few changes. Each scroll was written in calligraphic style; the commemorated name with title and corps was mentioned. An example is the scroll for Private William Murphy, of 12th Bn South Africa Infantry (please see figure 3).

The scroll and the King’s message were both sealed off with a replica signature of the King. They were issued by King George V to the next-of-kin together with the memorial plaque, (figures 3-6). They were posted individually, usually in the 1919-1920s. Postal services and memorial plaque receipt orders were to be signed by the next-of-kin. (see figures 5-6). 

The support that South Africa offered the British Empire was very important. For instance, 146 000 white and 855 000 non-white South African military service personnel served during WW1 (1914 -1918). South Africans served in the following campaigns during the War in support of the British Empire: German South-West Africa Campaign (1916-18); East Africa; Egypt Campaign (1916), Middle East: Palestine Campaign (1918); and in the Western Front Campaign (1916-18). It is estimated that more than 7 000 South African soldiers/servicemen were killed during the war. It is currently unknown how many memorial plaques were issued to the immediate next-of-kin of the South African servicemen/women who served during WW1. 

White South Africans held combative roles, while South African blacks/Africans were not endorsed to have combative roles. Elsewhere in Africa black Africans did have combative roles. They served outstandingly as auxiliary service personnel, horse-cart drivers, haulers, trench diggers, and ship off-loaders on the Western Front in France. They also faced death while in service. King George V approved and viewed black South Africans as his soldiers. Unfortunately, the Union of South Africa viewed them as secondary citizens/volunteers. However, all South African soldiers should be viewed as volunteers. To volunteer was more honourable than the alternative (conscription). Fewer black South Africans who were killed in WW1 received the recognition of medals and memorial plaques for their next-of-kin. The Corps that seemed to be recognised and received both medals and memorial plaques for Blacks and Coloured is the Cape Auxiliary Horse Transport (CAHT). An example is Sello Mokuena (figure 2). My colleague reminded me how the South African Legion did very good work for war veterans of all races. What they do is to assist the veterans who previously never received their medals or memorial plaques. However, we should note that many of the memorial plaques were donated to DITSONG: National Museum of Military History (DNMMH) by the next-of-kin for the preservation of military history and heritage management purposes. 

Conclusion

The military numismatic memorial plaque medallion was casted in bronze, with a size of approximately 120 mm in diameter and with a weight of about 30 grams. The memorial plaque is also known as the ‘Dead man’s penny’, or ‘Widow’s Penny’, since it looks similar to an old fashioned penny. The next-of-kin affectionately calls it the ‘the penny that you did not want to receive’. Although the Memorial plaques are uniform, each one has the serviceman/woman’s name inscribed on it, which is a unique reminder of one person who was killed during WW1. Examples of memorial plaque(s) that were issued include that of Pte William Murphy, 12th SAI, and Sello Mokuena (driver), CAHT non-combat (figures 1-2). It is estimated that more than one million memorial plaque(s) were produced at Building no 10, at Royal Arsenal in London. As a result, King George V issued the memorial plaque to the next-of-kin via postage services. The controversial topic(s) that is currently circulating on social media includes the spelling of ‘V’ – HONOVR instead of ‘U’ for ‘HONOUR’ on the memorial plaque. Some questioned if that was a spelling error! This is a topic that needs more time to discuss, as some claim that English and Latin originally used ‘V’ instead of ‘U’. Another issue is the ethical questions on displaying memorial/death plaques in public spaces such as antique shops or museums. Some believe that a memorial plaque was meant for personal use only, and should only be displayed at a private place/home of the next-of-kin. Some question the ethical issues around the selling or buying of memorial plaques that were meant for others. Finally, yet importantly, the DITSONG: National Museum of Military History is a relevant institution that preserves South African military history. Normally, the public, military veterans and next-of-kin kindly donate their historical military artefacts, and memorial plaques to us for national preservation, collection management, and research/education purposes. 

REFERENCES

DITSONG: National Museum of Military History (DNMMH)Display’: 

Memorial Plaque of Private William Murphy, 12th Battalion South Africa Infantry’ Company’ DNMMH: Lt Gen AML Masondo Library Building Entrance Display.  

Memorial Plaque of Sello Mokuena (Driver), Cape Auxiliary Horse Transport Company’ DNMMH: Western Front WW1 Display.  

Websites visited:

‘A World War I Memorial Plaque Dead Man’s Penny’,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=971I4jAXWy8&t=231s  [Accessed at 9 July 2022.]

‘Edward Carter Preston-Wikipedia’ https://en.m.wikipedia.org.org/wiki/Edward_Carter_Preston [Accessed on 24 July 2022]

‘Military Numismatic: The dead man’s penny |Baldwins Coins’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QgtmLz3seLw [Accessed at 9 July 2022.]

‘Next of Kin Memorial Plaque, Scroll and King’s Message’ https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/first-world-war-next-of-kin-plaque [Accessed on 9 July 2022]

 ‘FIRST WORLD WAR BRITISH MEMORIAL PLAQUE/DEATH PLAQUE/DEAD MAN’S PENNY’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eqMkf_rszU [Accessed on 9 July 2022.]

‘WWI Memorial Plaque (The Dead Man’s Penny)’  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=omJ-nKsRkSs [Accessed at 9 July 2022.]

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