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First World War Servicemen: Memorial Plaques

Volume 629: debated on Friday 20 October 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)

A number of years ago, before I was a Member of Parliament, I went to a local car boot sale and looking through all the bric-a-brac and things from days gone by, I came across a bronze plaque. It looked for all the world like a huge old Victorian penny. It had Britannia on the front, being shadowed by a lion, there were two dolphins and, at the bottom, a smaller lion was ripping apart an eagle. The lion with Britannia was the lion of courage, and the other lion was ripping apart the German eagle, while the dolphins signified the dominance of the seas enjoyed by the UK at the time. There was writing around the edge because the plaque was intended to commemorate the life of a fallen soldier. Such a plaque was known—rather crudely, given that it was to commemorate the life of one of our fallen soldiers—as a dead man’s penny. The service people were from the fledging Air Force of the time, from the Navy or those who had fallen on the battlefields.

I remember looking at the plaque—I did not know what it was; I researched it later—and wondering what had happened to the family of the fallen soldier, why the plaque had ended up there, what was the story behind the plaque and what was the story of the soldier’s life and the family he left behind. It struck me that, more often than not, such plaques reach the market—militaria shops, auction sites—because the family have died. I emphasise strongly from the outset that militaria shops do us a great service by helping to keep alive the spirit of historical campaigns and conflicts that we only read about in the history books.

I found out later that 1,355,000 of these plaques were given out. They were struck from 450 tons of bronze. They arrived in a box, sometimes with the medals of the soldier, airman or seaman, and every one of them had a certificate signed by King George V. They were given predominantly after the war, although some were given before its end, to the families of the fallen.

What does this mean in our day and age, 100 years on? We have had other wars, but world war one was the only occasion on which these plaques were struck in honour of the fallen. Each plaque was individually struck, not engraved, with the name of a serviceman, but no mention of their rank. It was struck simply to commemorate the serviceman or woman who gave their life doing their duty in the service of their country. In fact, 1,500 were given to women service personnel. They were given out all across the Commonwealth, to everybody engaged in the conflict. In the great war, we lost 22 Members of Parliament, 20 Lords and in the region of 98 sons of people who worked here or who were Members. This particular debate therefore has meaning not just for the rest of the country, but for Parliament itself.

Members have probably seen me walking around the Chamber today. I know it is not customary to display a dead man’s penny, but I have one with me. It says on the outside of the plaque, “He died for freedom and honour”. Some plaques say, “She died”, depending on the sex of the service person. As Members can see, the plaque is quite large and weighty. The gentleman named on it is Charles Edward Woodward. The hole in the plaque makes me a little emotional, because it means that it would have been hung on the wall, over the mantelpiece in his parent’s home. It is all they had left of him.

I bought this plaque from a militaria shop not far from here, and the staff were very helpful and honourable in the exchange. With it came this man’s history. It says that it is a great war memorial plaque issued in memory of Charles Edward Woodward, who served as Private No. 1,200 of the 1/5th Battalion the Lincolnshire Regiment, Territorial Force, and was killed in action at Ypres on 30 September 1915. Having no known grave, he is commemorated by name on the Ypres Menin Gate memorial. He was aged only 20. He was younger than my son.

My hon. Friend has mentioned the Lincolnshire Regiment and I suspect that he is about to explain the special part that this brave young man from my constituency played.

I thank my hon. Friend for that timely intervention, because I was welling up. He was 20 at the time of his death and was the son of Parker and Mary Jane Woodward of Rose Cottage, Halton Fenside, Spilsby, Lincolnshire. This plaque is all that is left of him—he was a person.

I want to raise awareness. One day I hope that we will be able to follow Lord Ashcroft’s commendable example by collecting the plaques for these fallen people and displaying them in a room—although it will be difficult to find one big enough to house more than 1.3 million of them—in order to commemorate those who died preserving the integrity of democracy and the freedom of our country.

Sadly, over the years, some of these plaques have been scrapped, because nobody knows what they are, although I do not think that many of them are finding their way to scrapyards. The previous Member for Croydon South promoted a private Member’s Bill that resulted in legislation preventing war memorials from being attacked and melted down, and I would like these plaques to be covered by its provisions, because they mean something.

My hon. Friend is making a very moving and passionate speech. He speaks of the Members we lost in this place in the great war. We see their shields in the Chamber every day. I would like to share a very positive initiative in one of the villages in my constituency, Crawley Down. A group of volunteers, led by Roger Webb and Philip Coote, is putting up memorial plaques on each of the homes of the servicemen who died in that awful conflict 100 years ago. It is wonderful to see that happening and I am hugely honoured to have been present when students from Crawley Down School have unveiled those memorials, keeping alive the memory of that generation of which my hon. Friend is speaking so eloquently.

I thank my hon. Friend for that nice story. It is right that we should commemorate. This is only part of the story, but it is fitting for those homes to bear those plaques.

What is the Government’s role? The Government would like to do everything they possibly can, but it is really up to the community to recognise that the plaques mean something. I would love to see a national memorial to the fallen, or for the plaques to go to local regiments, local museums or even the Military Heritage Society. Personally, I would like for Charles Edward Woodward’s plaque to be displayed here in the House of Commons. I understand, however, that because he does not have any ties with the Commons, that cannot be the case—maybe it could be displayed in the green case downstairs for a short time. I would therefore like to round off this emotive speech by letting him go home and handing the plaque to my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins).

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) for securing this debate, and I commend him for his eloquence, emotion and seriousness of purpose.

It is interesting to hear of the number of memorial plaques and scrolls that were issued to the families of the fallen, reminding us of the huge losses suffered by Britain and the then empire. As we have heard, the plaques were issued by the Government to the next of kin of those who died serving with the British and empire forces in the first world war, along with a commemorative scroll and a message from the king. While most were issued in the years immediately after the war, the fact that they were issued until the 1930s reminds us that the loss of life from the first world war continued after the guns fell silent on 11 November 1918. The fact that over 600 were issued to the families of women is a stark reminder of the important role that women played during the war. Once issued, the awards became the property of the families to do with as they saw, and see, most fitting. Many are still treasured by descendants, but, as my hon. Friend points out, in some cases they were donated or used in local memorials, and many local museums have them in their collections.

As I am sure my hon. Friend will understand, it is not practical or possible for our national museums to accept every item offered to them. This is especially apparent, given the tragically large scale of distribution of the plaques. When I visit museums, which I have done numerous times in my first four months as a Minister, it is amazing to see the number of items kept in storage. As with all museums, the Imperial War Museum has strict criteria for accepting items. These are determined by its acquisitions and disposal policy, which is available on the Imperial War Museum website. Decisions have to be made on what is of most value in the context of its collections, and in telling the stories of the causes, course and consequences of the first world war. I am sure the hon. Members will agree that it is not for Government to decide what should be done with items that are in the private ownership of families or collections.

Will you allow me a moment, Madam Deputy Speaker, to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale for making such a moving speech, and also for presenting me with a valuable and special token of the, sadly, very short life of someone who would have lived in Spilsby, in my constituency?

The Minister is talking about museums. We have a wonderful museum in Alford, just as few miles down the road from Spilsby, where that young man came from. It is run by volunteers, and currently has an exhibition commemorating the centenary of the first world war. The collection has been gathered from local people who have lent objects that have been found in their attics, or in their grandparents’ homes, to the museum at Alford Manor House. It will be my very great honour to lend this plaque to the museum until next year—with, obviously, the consent of my hon. Friend.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. She has made the case for the importance of local museums all over the country, and the enormous impact that they can have as communities seek to do the right thing by those who came before them and remember appropriately the sacrifices that were made.

It is very difficult to categorise the appeal of the plaques to their owners 100 years on from the war. Indeed, the Passchendaele centenary has shown us how varied are the connections that people feel to the fallen of the first world war, not only through direct family relationships but through associations based in their local communities, or connections through a school, regimental club or society. While it is not appropriate for the Government to consider collecting plaques that are no longer in the hands of the families of those who lost their lives during the war, a number of other options are open to those who possess a plaque or wish to find out more about how to commemorate an individual.

As my hon. Friends mentioned, local, regimental or corps museums associated with the place where the person commemorated lived, or was born, may have an interest in the plaques, or, indeed, in any other items relating to the first world war and its aftermath. They may also have further information about that person and his or her experience of the war. Local museums may be seen to have a stronger claim to the acquisition of such items, and are often well placed to exhibit them in their local context. That, I think, brings more meaning to the community that the individual came from.

Families now remember their fallen by dedicating a corner of their living room to the young man, or young woman, who is lost. They have the helmet, the hat, the belt and the medal. The medal usually has the young person’s name on it, written around the ring. The families generally have the letter of condolence as well. Families whom I have visited, because the people whom they have lost were under my command when they were killed, have had one of these pennies in the room. That brings family history to life, because, from the first world war to the present, it shows the family connection. It is wonderful to see that.

I thank my hon, and gallant Friend for what he has said. Whenever I think of him, I think of his service and the sacrifices made by him and by those alongside him. Once again, he has made a very important point.

There are also two invaluable online resources that help to commemorate those who fell. They provide more information about the person commemorated, and give those in possession of a plaque the option to make their information publicly available. The Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War project is a permanent digital memorial which records the stories of individuals from across Britain and the Commonwealth who served in uniform and worked on the home front. The website currently has more than 7.5 million individual life stories and more than 120,000 registered members. The site offers the opportunity to add details of medals and service to an individual’s record, as well as photographs of items, thereby creating a permanent digital memorial of their first world war story.

A notable example is Isaac Rosenberg, the artist and poet. His online life story on the site includes pictures of Isaac and his gravestone, as well as an image of the next-of-kin memorial plaque received by his family. He served as a private in the 1st Battalion, King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, where his experiences inspired some of his finest work. He was killed during the German spring offensive near Arras on 1 April 1918, but is remembered to this day.

The Royal British Legion also has its Every One Remembered database, which aims to ensure that by next year every man and woman from across the Commonwealth who fell during the first world war is remembered individually by those living today. This shows us that, while the way that people commemorate may have changed thanks to technology, the desire to remember the fallen is undiminished.

In the aftermath of the war, in addition to the memorial plaques, the fallen were recorded on many memorials up and down the country, and indeed across the world. As part of the Government’s centenary programme, there are many ways that communities can find out more about these memorials. I invite all hon. Members to encourage their constituents to explore the funding and training available and to get involved in recording and preserving them.

The war memorial portal project has seen the Imperial War Museum, Heritage England and other partners develop a new portal called, which hosts information on all UK war memorials and signposts routes for advice and funding. The portal has the most up-to-date advice on conserving and repairing memorials, and will continue to grow over the coming year. The site also contains information about other work that Historic England, the Imperial War Museum, the War Memorials Trust and Civic Voice are undertaking as part of the centenary programme to record and conserve memorials. To date, Historic England has added 1,860 memorials to the heritage list for England and expects to have listed 2,500 by the end of the centenary. Supporting this, Civic Voice has run over 180 workshops to train communities to survey and record the status of local memorials. I suggest that hon. Members recommend the site to any constituents with an interest in local memorials.

The War Memorials Trust, which provides a programme of grants to help to repair and conserve memorials, has to date made over 360 repair grants across the country, totalling some £1.4 million. It is also worth recognising the work of the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Victoria Cross commemorative paving stones project, which my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale alluded to. This project aims to commemorate each of the 627 men who won the Victoria Cross during the first world war by placing a commemorative stone in the town or village of their birth or, in the case of those born overseas, at the National Memorial Arboretum. The stones will be a visible reminder of the heroic contribution made by local people, as my hon. Friend referred to so eloquently.

In a debate on memorials to the fallen of the first world war, it is also appropriate to commend the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Its Menin Gate memorial and Tyne Cot cemetery recently hosted some of the Government-led events to commemorate the centenary of Passchendaele, the third battle of Ypres. However, it should be remembered that there are nearly 300,000 war graves in the UK from the first world war and other conflicts at 13,000 locations—details of local sites can be found on the CWGC website.

As we look ahead to the significant centenaries of 2018, the Government will of course be doing all we can to draw attention to different aspects of commemoration, and to the ways in which we remember our war dead. As part of that, we will of course do our utmost to ensure that the public are informed of the options open to them if they are in possession of memorial plaques, or indeed of any other personal items, and of how they can use them and resources such as Lives of the First World War to explore their own family and local history.

The memorial plaques and the many other memorials to the fallen of the first world war are a constant reminder of the huge sacrifice made by a whole generation 100 years ago, and I hope that through our commemoration programme, and by working with our partners on innovative ways of commemoration, we can ensure that future generations never forget those who fell.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.