The Bronze Memorial Plaque came into being as an award to the next-of-kin of the fallen. In 1916 the Government established a committee to look into a suitable way the nation might honour and commemorate those who had fallen in the Great War. Headed by the then Secretary of State for War, Lloyd George, the committee finally decided in August 1917 that a bronze plaque be made and sent to every deceased soldier’s next-of-kin. A competition was duly announced to find suitable designs.
A winning design by Mr Edward Carter Preston of Liverpool was eventually chosen, for which he received a £250 prize, and was approved by King George V in March 1918.
Manufacture was undertaken by the Memorial Plaque Factory based at Church Road, Acton, West London, though the factory could not cope with the demand and manufacture was later moved to the Woolwich Arsenal. Such plaques bear the Woolwich Arsenal monogram, a small ‘W’ within a circle, on the reverse.
The design shows the figure of Britannia, head bowed slightly towards the deceased’s’ name in raised capitals, holding aloft in her left hand a wreath of palm leaves, symbol of triumph. At her feet stands the British lion while in the background are two dolphins, symbolising of love and freedom (some books claim they symbolise the navy). The oak leaves on the lower right corner symbolise distinction, whilst at the base good overcoming evil is portrayed by a lion wrestling an eagle in its jaws. Around the edge is inscribed 'HE DIES FOR FREEDOM AND HONOUR'.
Some books claim that plaques issued to naval personnel have a slightly narrower 'H' in the 'He' compared to the 'H' in Honour, whereas with those issued to other services both Hs are the same size. This, however, has been shown to be inaccurate.
All plaques received a toned hand finish and bore the deceased's name in full, without rank or regiment, to show equality in sacrifice. The design, particularly Britannia's flowing robes, is heavily influenced by the art deco style popular at the time.
The qualifying criteria included all British, Imperial and Commonwealth servicemen and women who died between the 4th of August 1914 and the 30th of April 1920. Recipients also included medical personnel and nursing staff serving in military hospitals both abroad and in the UK and men of the Mercantile Marine. The cut-off date was designed to include those who were killed in actions in Russia, the North West Frontier of India, another war in Afghanistan and countless other immediate post war conflicts. Unlike the criteria for Great War service medals, service solely within the UK also qualified. It is therefore reasonably common to find plaques to those who were killed through accidents or illness during their initial training or home service and who never served abroad.
Some 1,355,000 were issued, including 600 to women, which had the alternative inscription, 'SHE DIE FOR FREEDOM AND HONOUR'. In subsequent years the plaque gained the grim nickname of 'The Dead Mans' Penny'.
Application for a plaque was made to the Board of Trade on special forms and it was their responsibility to vet all applicants through a stringent set of criteria. The plaque was then sent to the next of kin in a cardboard envelope and included an accompanying letter of condolence bearing a facsimile of the King's signature and a slip to return acknowledging safe receipt. A parchment memorial scroll was also issued separately by the Board of Trade, which bore the deceased's full name and regiment.
No records have survived as to who the Memorial Plaques were issued to and their award does not appear on Medal Index Cards, though the application forms sometimes survive in the person's Service Record.