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Dead Man's Penny
Dead Man's Penny
by Ken Wright

Somewhere amongst the vandalised graves, rusting wrought iron railing and a few empty beer bottles, lays the final resting place of Private Robert John Bruce of C Company 46th Battalion, Australian Imperial Forces. His grave in the Will Will Rook cemetery located in Melbourne's outer suburb of Broadmeadows is impossible to find as many graves have long since disappeared through years of wanton destruction and an indifferent public appreciation of the historical significance of the cemetery. 

Private Bruce was wounded at Pozieres on the 4 August 1916 and after 8 weeks in hospital returned to fight at Bullecourt, Ypres etc and was invalided home on the 18 September, 1917. Unfortunately, he died of war-related injuries on the 21November 1918 aged 33. His parents, John and Mary Bruce, laid their son to rest with due reverence and the knowledge that he had made the supreme sacrifice for King and country. As the next of kin, a grateful British Government sent his parents a Memorial Death Plaque commonly called the 'Dead Man's Penny' by the troops.

The history of the Dead Man's Penny began in 1916 with the realisation by the British Government that some form of an official token of gratitude should be given to the fallen service men and women's bereaved next of kin. The enormous casualty figures not anticipated at the start of WWI back in 1914 prompted this gesture of recognition. In 1917, the government announced a competition to design a suitable plaque with a prize of 250 pounds. There were 800 entries from all over the Empire, the Dominions, and even from the troops on the Western Front. Mr E. Carter Preston of Liverpool, England, was the eventual winner.

The selected design was a 12-centimetre disk cast in bronze gunmetal, which incorporated the following; an image of Britannia and a lion, two dolphins representing Britain's sea power and the emblem of Imperial Germany's eagle being torn to pieces by another lion. Britannia is holding an oak spray with leaves and acorns. Beneath this was a rectangular tablet where the deceased individual's name was cast into the plaque. No rank was given as it was intended to show equality in their sacrifice. On the outer edge of the disk, the words, 'He died for freedom and honour'.

A scroll, 27 x 17 centimetres made of slightly darkened parchment headed by the Royal Coat of Arms accompanied the plaque with a carefully chosen passage written in old English script,

'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.'

Beneath this passage, written in the same style, was the name, and rank and service details of the deceased. To accompany the scroll, again in old English script, a personal message from King George V.'

'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.

The plaques were packaged in stiff cardboard wrapping folded like an envelope and sent to the next of kin. Production of the plaques and scrolls, which was supposed to be financed by German reparation money, began in 1919 with approximately 1,150,000 issued. They commemorated those who fell between 4 August 1914 and 10 January 1920 for home, Western Europe and the Dominions whilst the final date for the other theatres of war or for those died of attributable causes was 30 April 1920. Unfortunately, the production and delivery of the plaques was not a complete success and the scheme ended before all the families or next of kin of the deceased received the official recognition they should have. There were some relatives who returned the pennies to the Australian Government in protest as they felt it was insulting and it did not replace their loved one's life. Of course, nothing can replace a life lost, but for those 'Dead Man's Pennies' that are in private or public collections, museums and national archives, they are a constant reminder of the ultimate price paid by the men and women of the armed services during the Great war of 1914-1918.

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Dead Man's Penny . Australian War Memorial Encyclopaedia.

A Very Poor Exchange. Elizabeth Rummins. Western Ancestor Article, June 1995. Digger History. Internet. Photographs. Author's collection.

R.J.Bruce. Service record from National Archives [Canberra] and personal information in author's collection.

* * *

Copyright © 2006 Ken Wright.

Written by Ken Wright. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Ken Wright at:

About the author:
Ken Wright lives in Melbourne Australia and served 5 years in the Australian army in an Armoured Recon Unit. He has worked as a book sales rep and correctional officer. He is married with two children, three dogs, and two cats. He retired early and began writing 4 years ago and has written numerous published articles published for military magazines in Australia, the UK and the US.

Published online: 07/16/2006.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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