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History of Dead Man’s Penny

The World War 1 has gone down books of history as one of the fiercest battles ever fought on the face of the earth. Many factors have contributed to the much attention and interest the war has received. One of the factors is the number of casualties reported in the war. Several studies and statistics taken then reveal that the war involved more than thirty million people, ten million of them being soldiers from Europe.

Nevertheless, the exact number of casualties of the war and the severity of the whole battle is not clear. As such, there are reports and records of people who still search for their loved ones whom they believe were victims of the war. A good example is with the families of British soldiers (Martel, 2003).

Through out the war several state governments including Britain sent large numbers of soldiers and army official to the battle fields. A good number of these soldiers fell victims of the war in one way or the other. Most of them gave in to the effects and later on succumbed to war related injuries.

Having died in the line of duty, the British Government saw it wise to give an official token as a form of appreciation for the supreme sacrifices made by its soldiers and army personnel and this marked the birth of the Dead Man’s Penny (Baker, n.d.).

The Dead Man’s Penny (officially referred to as the Memorial Death Plaque), has a vast history dating back to mid 1916i. As stated earlier, the main reason for the launch of the plaque was to show gratitude to the family of the soldiers who died while in the line of duty.

Giving an official token for the fallen services of these soldiers was believed to show the King’s greatest remorse to the next of kin of the deceased for his/her supreme sacrifices at the expense of his/her country.

The honor came in the form of a bronze plaque designed with the shape of the penny coin. In the book; The Origins of the First World War, Martel (2003) states, “The enormous casualty figures not anticipated at the start of WWI back in 1914 were the ones that prompted this gesture of recognition” (p. 34)ii. By mid 1930s close to 1,355,000 memorial death plaques had been issued.

Design of the Penny

The designing of the plaque started with the government advertising the idea in the media and putting it up as a competition. Several artists showed great interest and sent their applications. It is believed that close to 800 applicants from all over the Empire showed up for the competition.

One factor that made it attract more attention is that the contest also came with a prize of 250 pounds for the designer who would emerge with the most suitable plaque.

After a series of interviews and evaluations of the entries, the selected designers got down to business and it was Mr. Carter Preston who emerged the winner with his design being adopted for the first Memorial Plaque. Mr. Carter resided in Liverpool and was a renowned artist internationally.

The first design (officially referred to as the Pyramus), had a diameter of about 5 inches or 120 mm and was made from bronze as directed by the state government. It had an image of Britannia carrying a trident. Next to the image was the picture of a lion as a symbol of bravery depicted by the fallen soldiers through their dedicated efforts in fighting for their king and empire.

The government also allowed Mr. Carter to include his initials (E.Cr.P) on the front paw as a sign of acknowledgement for pioneering of the design. The image of the Britannia had its left hand outstretched and held an oak wreath. Under the wreath was a rectangular frame in which the identity of the person being honored was written.

Following an argument within the government’s department in charge of the Plaque, the officials decided not to include the respective ranks of the deceased. It was argued that all war causalities died under common circumstance and were all in the line of duty. As such, there were no differences in terms of sacrifices made by each of them.

There were also two dolphins on the front face of the plaque. The dolphins swam around the Britannia as a sign of the much coveted Britain’s sea power. There was also an image of another lion at the bottom of the plaque. The image showed the lion tearing the German eagle. All these features clearly showed how remorseful the government was for her fallen men and women.

This is evident as “around the picture the legend reads (in capitals) “He died for freedom and honor”, or for the six hundred plaques issued to commemorate women, “She died for freedom and honor” (p. 1)iii. Appendix A shows the first design of the plaque.

The first plaques were manufactured at the Memorial Plaque Factory, 54/56 Church Road, Acton, W3, London. In efforts of keeping records of the exact number of war casualties whose fate had been known, the government ordered that all plaques be stamped with numbers of manufacture. However, this took effect later on as the first plaques did not have the stamps.

The station at Memorial Plaque Factory in London served from the day of its launch to late 1920 and in December 1920, it was moved to a new site (Royal Arsenal, Woolwich). The new station manufactured plaques with the initials ‘WA’ stamped at the back of the plaque to show their place of manufacture. It also changed the place where the number of manufacture was initially to the space between the tail and the hind legs of the lion.

Later on when the government started appreciating women who also died in the war, the original design lacked sufficient space to include all details required for their plaque. Carter Preston was once again called upon to make a few changes to the original design.

With the space between letter H in initials ‘HE’ and the lion’s back paw being insufficient for the initials ‘SHE’ (for the women’s plaque), Carter narrowed letters H and E to create space for the letter S to be inserted. However, after several plaques for the women were manufactured (around 1500) the master moulds were redesigned again to produce the male version. The main alteration was removing the letter S.

The family of Private Bruce was among the first families to be honored with the plaque. Private Bruce, son to John and Mary Bruce was among the soldiers who survived the fierce August 4th 1916 battle at Pozieres. However, he escaped with serious injuries that made him pull out of the war.

Having nursed his wounds for over 8 months, Bruce returned to war and was among the soldiers in the frontline during the fight at Bullecourt. However, he was not lucky and was seriously wounded. On 21st November 1918, Bruce succumbed to injuries and died at the age of 33.

During the time of his burial, John and Mary Bruce received Memorial Plaque from the British Government. Together with the plaque was a scroll headed by the Royal Coat of Arms and a paragraph that read:-

‘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.’iv

Under the paragraph were details of Private Bruce and a personal message from the King that read:-

‘I join with my grateful people in sending you this memorial of a brave life given for others in the Great War. ————George R I.v

Most of the plaques during Bruce’s era were packaged in a cardboard designed like an envelope and were manufactured with German reparation money. According to statistics, by 1920, around 1,150,000 plaques had been issued to various families.

However, the program was short lived as not all families of the deceased were recognized and acknowledged. One of the main reasons for the collapse as stated by a number of scholars is the change of government and the complexity of researching on the deceased soldiers.

There were also controversies surrounding the whole scheme. For instance, a number of families felt insulted with the plaques. They argued that the plaques were meant to tease them as they could not bring back their loved ones. In their opinion, the government could have started recognizing and appreciating its soldiers before they died.

However, majority welcomed the idea as they agreed that Dead Man’s Pennies in private and public collection were the most appropriate reminder of the supreme sacrifices their loved ones made for them and their country during the great World War 1 of 1914-1918vi.

Regiment history

As stated earlier, the Great War of 1914-1918 has gone down the books of history as one of the fiercest wars ever fought by man. It involved over 20 nations that were grouped in two main groups; the superpowers and the Allies. It was recorded that the number of military personnel who took part in the war exceeded 70 million of which more than 10 million were killed.

A great percentage of the military personnel were from Europe as the continent served as the main battle field for the war. With the large number of casualties and adverse aftermath effects, the war has been ranked as the world’s sixth deadliest conflict.

Several factors have been linked as the main causes of the war with imperialistic foreign policies of world’s superpowers being highlighted as the major one. The fact that the war mainly involved the empires of German, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian Britain, Russia France and Italy among others implies that the continent was the most vulnerable (Lyons, 1999).

Among the Allied (Entente) Powers, Russia and Britain seemed more involved compared to others with each providing 12,000,000 and 8,841,541 military personnel respectively. Large numbers of military personnel and advanced machinery used worked to the advantage of the Allies who finally emerged victorious. The aftermath of the war also saw the collapse of empires of German, Ottoman, Russia and Austro-Hungarian.

With the above statistics, Britain emerges as one of the key contributors in the war both in military power and technology. It had an army of more than 8 million who were all trained and equipped with adequate war machines. It is obvious that an army of 8 million may be difficult to maintain especially in such deadly battles. Therefore, the British Government subdivided its army into various subdivisions and each assigned to a leader.

The subgroups worked closely together to achieve a common goal. In addition, each subgroup was father divided into other smaller groups which were assigned various duties. Just like in division of labor, all military personnel were to contribute to the success of the war by adhering to the task assigned to the subgroups to which he belonged (Mosier, 2001).

The smallest group was referred to as company. These groups had manageable number of soldiers (mostly ranging from 100-200) and were assigned specific duties. Most of the companies were named after the duty they were assigned. For example, there was Engineer Company in charge of all technical and mechanical issues of the equipments used.

There were also the ambulance and motor transport companies that were tasked with the transportation of equipments and soldiers during the war. In some scholars, the nomenclature of the company is abbreviated to the initials of the name of the work of the company followed by the abbreviations ‘Coy’.

In some instances, the companies are numbered with two numbers, one for the company and the other for the battalion to which the company belonged. This is common especially with those in the technical branch. For instance, 1/4 Company meant 1st Company, 4th Battalion. On the other hand, most of the infantry companies are lettered like Artillery Company may be simply referred to as A Companyvii.

A group of three to four companies formed another subgroup in the military called the Battalion. This was the group tasked with working together in small groups to achieve a common goal. The battalions had leaders who oversaw all the activities of each and every company. They also gave orders as instructed from their seniors. A group of three to four battalions made up a regiment (Wright, 2006).

Similarly, three to four regiments made up a Brigade. Brigade was a superior group with great influence. Three to four brigades merged to form a division and three to four divisions made up a corps. Just like the other subgroups, a group of three to four corps made up an army which represented the military force of the British Government (Wright, 2006).

The Northumberland Fusiliers Regiment 25th battalion

As stated earlier, the British military force was divided into various subgroups for easy maintenance and effective. One of these branches of groups was the regiments. From the above breakdown of how the army was grouped, a regiment can be simply described as a group of three to four battalions. Most regiments during the Great War comprised of 1,200 – 1,600 soldiers and had 17 to 20 battalions.

During the war, most attention was directed to the regiments as they formed up the most influential groups in the military force. Regiment leaders enacted directions from the respective brigades to which theybelonged.

Example of some of the most outspoken regiment during the war included the Cheshire regiment, The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment), The Royal Scots (Lothian Regiment), The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment and the Northumberland Fusiliers regiment among othersviii.

The Northumberland Fusilier regiment also referred to as the Fighting Fifth was the second largest regiments after the London Regiment. By the end of the war, it had raised the most number of battalions after the London Regiment. Its history dates back to the 1880s. Its size characteristics made it one of the most significant regiments that offered services in the World War 1.

The battalions of the Fighting Fifth were numbered consecutively from 1 to 34. However, it is believed that the regiment raised up to 51 battalions. The battalions comprised of long service, professional and territorial soldiers. There were also volunteers who worked under part time programs, the same programs as those of the U.S. Army National Guard units. Most of the long service and professional soldiers were in the battalions numbered 1st through 3rd. These battalions were permanent with the regiment.

Battalions 4th to 7th were general battalions and most of the territorial soldiers and part time volunteers belonged to this group. The battalions numbered 8th and beyond mostly comprised of volunteer, war-raised units and citizen-soldiers that existed for the duration of the war. However, all these groups of soldiers were disbanded after the war. Despite the large size, soldiers’ wellbeing was closely monitored.

For instance, Mosier (2001) states, “Typically, every battalion and every regiment in the British Army was below its authorized “on-paper” strength due to men being killed or wounded or being transferred in or out of the unit, or being absent on home or sick leave”(p 56)ix.

Most of the battalions were service oriented. However, battalions 28th to 34th were reserve battalions. The battalion in question [25th (Service) Battalion (2nd Tyneside Irish)] has a vast history. It was established on 9th November 1914 in Newcastle. The Lord Mayor and City was the one behind the formation of the battalion. With its formation, the battalion offered a range of services under the Lord Mayor and the City.

In mid 1915, it moved on and attached to the 103rd Brigade of the 34th Division. It is still not clear what motivated the attachment. However, the influence of the brigade has vastly been used to explain the attraction. Six months later (in January 1916) the battalion landed in France where it made impact almost immediately. On 3rd February 1918, the battalion transferred from 103th Brigade to the 102nd one of the 34th Division.

This had adverse effects on the battalion as it was decreased to cadre strength by 16th May of the same yearx. This was then followed by a series of transfers with one on 17th June 1918 where it transferred to the 116th Brigade, 39th Division.

29th July of the same year it is reported that it farther transferred 197th Brigade but this time round it also changed division to the 66th, also known as the 2nd East Lancashire. The final transfer came on 20th September 1918 when it transferred to Line of Communication (with 197th Brigade).

The regiment used sophisticated machine guns. This was one of the main reasons for its success. Both territorial and professional soldiers were trained on how to transport, fire and maintain the heavy machinery. Just like other regiment, Fighting Fifth had one of the biggest detachments at its Base depot. The detachment was under the watch of one subaltern, two sergeants and around 45 Privatesxi.

There were also three store men who physically took care of the detachment and received instructions from the Sergeant Master Tailor. The battalion also had a group of soldiers who formed up the regiment band. These were ones were responsible for the health being of the other soldiers. Most of them were medically trained and thus offered first aid services to all soldiers injured.

They also acted as stretcher bearers while in the battle field. Junior military personnel such as drivers and signalers were only entitled to carry a sword as they were believed to have minimal risks. All those personnel above the sergeant rank carried a pistol as NCO’s together with the other ranks carried rifles.

Use of horses was the main means of transport used during the era of the regiment. Statistics reveal that there regiment and 25th battalion had close to 600 riding horses (Chickering, 2004).

Some of the big names associated with the 25th Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers regiment include Lance Corporal Thomas Bryan. The corporal is much remembered for his efforts in silencing a machine-gun of which he found to be inflicting a lot of damage.

He was so vocal with the idea despite the fact that he had been wounded a number of times. His technique included “approaching the gun from behind, disabling it and killed two of the team as they were abandoning the gun” (p. 76)xii. His efforts gained momentum because of the fact that the gun machine gun was a major hindrance to advancement to the second objective (Chickering, 2004).

In conclusion, all the above facts about the Great War of 1914-1918 are proof enough to show how complex the war was. The large number of military personnel involved also shows how big the war was. In other words, the magnitude and the complexity of the war made it attract a lot of attention all over the world.

There are these factors that made most strong power nations to invest heavily in the war. Nevertheless, the aftermath effects were felt all over the world with some nations such as German, Ottoman, Russia and Austro-Hungarian collapsing.


Baker, C. (n.d.). The Northumberland Fusiliers. Web.

Chickering, R. (2004). Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914–1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lyons, M. (1999). World War I: A Short History. New York: Prentice Hall.

Martel, G. (2003). The Origins of the First World War. Harlow: Pearson Longman.

Mosier, J. (2001). Germany and the Development of Combined Arms Tactics: Myth of the Great War; How the Germans Won the Battles and How the Americans Saved the Allies. New York: Harper Collins.

Wright, K. (2006). Dead Man’s Penny. Retrieved from

Appendix: Memorial Death plaque

Memorial Death plaque


i Wright, K, Dead Man’s Penny (2006).

ii Martel, G, The Origins of the First World War (Pearson Longman 2003).

iii Wright, K, Dead Man’s Penny (2006).

iv Wright, K, Dead Man’s Penny (2006).

v Wright, K, Dead Man’s Penny (2006).

vi Lyons, M, World War I: A Short History (Prentice Hall 1999).

vii Mosier, J, Germany and the Development of Combined Arms Tactics: Myth of the Great War; How the Germans Won the Battles and How the Americans Saved the Allies (Harper Collins 2001).

viii Mosier, J, Germany and the Development of Combined Arms Tactics: Myth of the Great War; How the Germans Won the Battles and How the Americans Saved the Allies (Harper Collins 2001).

ix Mosier, J, Germany and the Development of Combined Arms Tactics: Myth of the Great War; How the Germans Won the Battles and How the Americans Saved the Allies (Harper Collins 2001).

x Baker, C, The Northumberland Fusiliers (n.d.).

xi Baker, C, The Northumberland Fusiliers (n.d.).

xii Lyons, M, World War I: A Short History (Prentice Hall 1999).

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