Friday 5 July 2024

The Dead Man's Penny by V E H Masters

 Writing books can be quite a lonely business. In the past few years, post COVID, I've occasionally taken a table at Fairs, along with fellow historical fiction author Margaret Skea, to sell my books and chat to readers, or potential readers – and to other stall holders.

 Recently I found myself at an Antiques Fair – my books are historical fiction so I thought it was roughly a fit to sell them there – and grew curious about some of the memorabilia the neighbouring stall holder was selling.

One particular display drew my attention. 'It's a Dead Man's Penny,' said Neil Watson, the stall holder,  and went on to explain the sad story associated with it.

The official name for the Dead Man's Penny, also known as the Widow's Penny, was the Memorial Plaque. Cast from bronze it was sent to the next of kin of everyone who died serving overseas with the British Empire forces in WWI, along with a scroll and a message from the king. 

This plaque came into being as a way to give the family something tangible in memory of their loved ones. A competition was set up in 1917 and the winning design, by Edward Carter Preston, was chosen from more than 800 entries. Almost inevitably it includes Britannia and a lion although the significance of the dolphins is lost on me and as for the olive branch, which Britannia is extending… perhaps that is a prayer for the future.

In all 1.33 million were sent out, of which 600 were in memory of women who died in service during WW1.

The Dead Man's Penny which I saw was particularly poignant since it came with pictures, medals and the letter notifying his mother of the lad's death. His name was William Towers, which was inscribed on the plaque. None of the pennies had the rank included since it was considered that no life lost was more or less important than another. (The cynic in me also wondered if it saved on the costs to limit engraving.)

William, a soldier in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was only eighteen years old when he died in April 1918. He had been at the front for four months. The collection associated with William's Dead Man's Penny is for sale because his family line has died out – which likely would not have happened had he survived.

I'm always drawn to war memorials. Here's the one in the very small village where I used to live. There are two things of significance for me about it. Firstly the far greater numbers who died in WW1 as opposed to WW2 and secondly the numbers sharing a surname – which likely meant brothers, father and son, or cousins gone from the same family. I cannot even begin to imagine the grief.

Proportionately Scotland lost more men in WW1 than any other country fighting as part of the British Empire. I've always been curious why.

Field Marshall Douglas Haig, who was in command on the Western Front from 1915 onwards, believed the bravado and tenacity of his Scottish regiments could win the war for him. A Scot himself from Edinburgh, whose family owned the successful whisky distillers, he had little patience for trench warfare and wanted to push through. In the frequent assaults it was often his 'favoured' Scottish regiments that were sent out first. Lauded as a hero at the end of the war this perspective changed in the 1960s when his war record was re-examined and he was given the epithet Butcher Haig.

My grandfather fought on the Western Front from 1915 onwards. On the single occasion as a child when I persuaded him to speak of his war experiences, he told me that he heard a bullet whistle past his ear at the battle of the Somme. Miraculously he survived three years of war uninjured – else I wouldn't be here!


V E H Masters is the author of four historical fiction novels following the adventures of the Seton Family as they navigate their way through the perils of 16th century Europe. She is the winner of the Barbara Hammond Trophy and her books are regularly on the Amazon Bestseller lists. She lives in the Scottish Borders.

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