One of the most interesting exonumismatic items of the modern era comes from the first World War.
In 1917, while World War I raged, the British government set up a committee to create a memorial plaque to be sent to the next-of-kin of any British subject who died as a result of the war (this included those who died in training or from natural causes, so long as it was determined to be war-related.) A competition was held to design the plaque; the deadline for judging had to be extended when over 800 entries poured in from around the British Empire. The top designs won cash awards, and Mr. Edward Carter Preston’s design won the competition. His design features a large and powerful Britannia, with a growling lion. (Oddly enough, the zoo at Clifton in Bristol wrote to the Times to complain that the lion looked too small and feeble to properly represent the might of the British nation.) Two dolphins adorn the background near Britannia’s head to symbolize British naval power, and at the bottom of the design, a second lion sinks its teeth into a bird symbolizing the German nation. The initials of the designer appear above the lion’s foot. “He died for freedom and honor” appears around the rim of the design, per specifications from the design committee (for the women who died, the pronoun was changed accordingly.)
Several variants of the plaques exist. The manufacturing of the plaques moved to the Woolwich Arsenal munitions factory after production stalled at the original Acton facility. The Woolwich plaques feature a distinctive symbol, a W with a line across the center to form an A, stamped on the plaque’s blank reverse. The “H” in “HE DIED” on some plaques is narrower than others. Preston, the designer, made this change to accommodate the addition of an “S” for female honorees. The original wider H is mostly found on plaques for Army members. In addition to the designer’s initials, some plaques have a batch number stamped near the lion’s rear paw.
These memorial plaques were created in the hundreds of thousands, with over six hundred known plaques presented to the next of kin of women who died in the service of the British Empire. Each recipient of a plaque also received a scroll, sent separately; both arrived with signatures from the king. Many of the war dead never had a plaque created for them, since no next of kin could be found. This may have been caused by poor families living in rental properties and moving without leaving forwarding addresses, names changing due to marriage, or even a soldier having no living next of kin for a plaque to be sent to. Record-keeping and information technology of the time simply had no way of tracking many families down.
Given the durability of the bronze plaques, the sheer number of memorials produced, and the honored status of the plaques, many are still in existence. (The scrolls, being much more fragile, are harder to find.) They are also known as a Dead Man’s Penny (though they are over 4 inches across), Widow’s Penny, or the Death Plaque. Miniature plaques can also be found; most are found with no names engraved on them. The prominent theory is that these were produced commercially, in hopes that other families members of a slain soldier might want their own memorial, and buy a small version to have engraved with their serviceman’s name on it. As these are found in abundance with no names, it does not seem to have been a profitable concept.
As with any memorial object, these plaques became objects of varied use. Many were displayed in homes with the accompanying scroll. Some were tucked away in attics or basements for storage. Many were lost or sold. But some were more creative, and more emotional.
In a small rural cemetery in Cork, Ireland, the Burke family has kept a family plot for decades. One stone stands out in particular. It has a concrete gravestone, topped with a stone cross, and bearing the plaques for three men: Stephen, Cornelius, and Edward Burke. The men themselves are likely not buried here, but the memorial plaques keep the record. (For more details about the Burke family and this grave marker, please read the excellent post on the Irish Garrison Towns blog.)