Family Heirloom- Dead Man’s Penny for James Joseph Stapleton

A family heirloom on our children’s paternal side of the family is a World War I Memorial Plaque, but is more popularly known as a ‘Dead Man’s Penny’. It is in memory of James Joseph Stapleton who was killed in action on the Somme on 1 September 1918.

J J Stapleton Memorial Plaque-Copyright Nola Mackey 2013

This Photograph is Copyright-Nola Mackey

These Memorial Plaques were issued after World War I to the next of kin of all British and Empire soldiers, sailors and airmen who were killed or died of wounds during the war.

In 1919 the British Government held a design competition for the proposed plaque. There were over eight hundred designs submitted. The winner was Edward Carter Preston a renowned sculptor and medalist for a prize of £250.

These plaques were made of bronze and about five inches or 120 mm in diameter.

The medal design was only on the front and is an image of Britannia holding a trident and standing with a lion. In Britannia’s outstretched left hand is an oak wreath. At the bottom of the plaque is another lion tearing apart the German eagle symbolizing Britain’s superiority on land. Dolphins swim around Britannia symbolizing sea power.

A rectangular tablet to the right of Britannia is where the deceased’s full name is inscribed. No rank is included as all gave the same sacrifice- their life. Around the edge of the plaque in capital letters reads: “HE/SHE DIED FOR FREEDOM AND HONOUR.”

The initial plaques were made at Acton in London, but later, manufacture was shifted to the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich. On the back of this plaque is “WA”(the A being formed by a bar between the upward strokes of the “W” ), which indicates it was made at Woolwich.

These plaques were issued with a commemorative scroll from King George V.

On receipt of the scroll and plaque the next of kin were required to officially acknowledge by letter and form. These can be found within the service personel records at the Australian Archives.

From the 18th Century the British ‘penny’ was made of copper and a ‘Britannia’ design featured on the face of the coin. It is described as- “Britannia seated facing right, wearing a helmet, holding a trident in her left hand and her right hand resting on a shield with the words ‘one penny’ in the field and date below.” This design with few variations remained as the face of the British penny from c 1780 to 1967.

During World War I the soldiers used these coins as ‘Two-up’ Pennies and even today many surviving sets come out on “Anzac Day”. This is the only day ‘Two-up’ is legally sanctioned.

Due to the similarity in design of the Memorial Plaque and the British penny the Memorial plaque became known colloquially as “The Dead Man’s Penny”.

See also

posted 21 April 2013 at World War I Family Heroes – The Stapleton Boys

posted 13 October 2014 at Australian World War I Battlefields Tour – Family Heroes J J Stapleton and R E Sherwood – Mont St Quentin

 posted 13 October 2014 at Australian World War I Battlefields Tour – Family Heroes J J Stapleton and R E Sherwood – Peronne

Australian World War I Battlefields Tour – Family Heroes J J Stapleton and R E Sherwood – Peronne

In my last blog I wrote about our experience at Mont St Quentin, while on a tour of the Australian World War I Battlefields.

After St Quentin we drove on to Peronne, where we had lunch and visited the ‘Historial De La Grande Guerre 14-18’ or the Museum of the War of 1914-18, which was housed in the old medieval castle. It was well worth visiting, as it showed the story of the soldiers, of the many nations, who took part in the war.

After lunch we boarded the bus and drove to the Peronne Communal Cemetery Extension.

The Peronne Communal Cemetery Extension was begun in March 1917 after the Germans had abandoned the town the first time. The Germans continued to use this cemetery when they took the town back in early 1918.

The Australian 2nd Division became the final group to use it, until after the end of the war when the Commonwealth Graves Commission brought in all those soldiers in isolated graves and small cemeteries. There are 517 Australians here, nearly all lost their lives on the attack on Mont St Quentin in late August and early September 1918.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has its own website at http://www.cwgc.org/. It is worth visiting not only for the history and continued work of the Commission, but the symbolism which goes with the cemeteries, such as the ‘Cross of Sacrifice’ and the ‘Stone of Remembrance’.

This was the first of many cemeteries we visited over the next few days, and our tour guide did a wonderful job in educating our group on these features, as well as many more concerning the general nature of these cemeteries.

We have two family heroes in this cemetery, Private Robert Edward Sherwood and Corporal James Joseph Stapleton.

Before we left home in June I had printed out from the above mentioned website, the map of this cemetery and marked the position of their graves.

We were able to alight from the bus at the cemetery gate.

The sky was grey and cheerless, never the less the cemetery was beautiful with the gleaming white headstones, lush green grass, and coloured flowers in full bloom decorating the graves themselves. The whole was shrouded in a peaceful silence.

We were the only members of the group to have soldiers buried here, and with the assistance of Pete and our fellow tour companions we were quickly able to find their graves.

For the second time that day we were in for a surprise, although perhaps we should not have been. Corporal J J Stapleton was buried between his two mates, who were carrying him to the field medical station when they were killed by shrapnel from an exploding ‘whiz-bang’ mortar shell.

This gave us a strange comforting feeling knowing that even though he had died so far away from home and family, he was not alone, but resting in peace beside his mates.(Below)

DSC02758

We were able to take photos with the back -drop of the Australian flag. One of the members of our group had previously made many tours of the Western Front Battlefields, and generously shared with us all an Australian flag he had brought with him. We all appreciated this kind gesture, as it gave an added depth to all our photos.

My grandmother’s, cousin, Robert Edward Sherwood was also buried in another section of the cemetery. We  took photos of his grave with the Australian flag too.(Below)

DSC02749

After reboarding the bus, we headed for the town of Iepers, where we were to stay the night.

Australian World War I Battlefields Tour – Family Heroes J J Stapleton and R E Sherwood – Mont St Quentin

In former blogs I have mentioned we planned to visit the Australian Battlefields of World War I in France and Belgium this year, to honour our relatives, who fought there. Now we have done this, I will share with you some of our experiences.

Our tour was arranged with an Australian company and was fitted around other tours we planned, as we made the best of the opportunity of being in Britain and Europe in the summer.

We took the Eurostar from London to Paris, where we were joined by several other Australians booked on the Australian Battlefields Tour.

Our Tour Guide, Pete Smith, a former British serviceman, who now lives in France, knows the landscape and history intimately. Everyone on the tour had lost family members on these battlefields and Pete made a special effort to visit as many War Graves Cemeteries as possible, and locate the graves of the fallen soldiers belonging to the families. He also described all the battles and conditions in detail, so we could understand, and felt a connection to the places.

We all had a copy of an excellently researched and written book, Walking with the Anzacs- A Guide to the Australian Battlefields on the Western Front’ by Mat McLachlan. This was very helpful in not only giving background to the battles, but maps and other useful information of what was going on around the area, during the war. This helped us understand better what Pete was showing us.

The bus left Paris about 9 am and we headed northwards to the Belgium border. The sky was over-caste and the showers followed us throughout the morning, as we wove in and out of the heavy traffic.

Our first stop was on the edge of the Somme at Mont St Quentin. Here is a quote from the above mentioned book, “The attack on Mont St Quentin was considered by many to be the Australian’s greatest action in World War I. In three days, between 31 August and 2 September 1918, a handful of desperately under strength battalions captured one of the most formidable German defensive positions on the Western Front and took over 2600 prisoners.”

It was here that J J Stapleton and R E Sherwood lost their lives on the 1st and 2nd September 1918. I have written about these men in former blogs, however, to stand on the edge of the ‘Mont’ and have a clear view over looking the fields, that the Australians fought across in the half light of the morning of the 31st August 1918, was very moving. Directly behind us on the ‘Mont’ were the German trenches, still visible but half hidden in the wooded undergrowth.

DSC02810

A short distance away was the remnant of a defensive stone wall with an Australian mortar shell still embedded in it.

We were shocked how exposed and flat the terrain was, and still find it hard to believe what those brave Australians accomplished in those few days.

DSC02775

On the back of this hill is the village of St Quentin. Here the striking 2nd Division Memorial stands. This original memorial was unveiled on 30 August 1925, the seventh anniversary of the battle. The memorial now depicts a larger than life Australian soldier in full military kit standing astride, on a stone plinth. The Digger faces north-east, the direction of the Australian advance. This Digger figure is unique amongst the Australian Divisional Memorials, as the other four are identical stone obelisks. These we later visited on our tour. This was not the original sculpture. The first one, unveiled in 1925, was an Australian soldier bayoneting a German Eagle sprawled at his feet. German soldiers who occupied this area during World War II destroyed the sculpture leaving only the plinth. The present Digger sculpture was erected in 1971.

The memorial is surrounded by houses, but the adjacent tree-lined roadway is called the ‘Avenue des Australiens’.

There are a number of ‘story boards’ with photographs adjacent to the memorial. One struck a deep chord with us. It was of two soldiers carrying a stretcher with a wounded soldier across the open battlefield, accompanied by a fourth man waving a white red cross flag, above his head on the end of a stick. The reason it effected us so much, was that it was taken the exact day James Joseph Stapleton was injured and was stretchered by two mates towards the field dressing station. However, the three of them were killed by shrapnel, when a ‘whiz-bang’ shell exploded in the air above them.

We will never know who the soldiers in this photo were, but it did give us a small window into the lives of the men on the battlefield.

We know the three soldiers who were killed, were buried in a shell hole close by where they fell, and crosses were erected soon afterwards.

There is a photograph of the original grave of J J Stapleton, which was sent to his mother, by the original Imperial War Graves Commission. It is in the possession another Stapleton descendant.

We also know from military records that their bodies were retrieved some two years later by the War Graves Commission, and were reburied in the Peronne Communal Cemetery Extension.

World War I Family Heroes – The Stapleton Boys

At this time of year, many of us remember all those ancestors and family members, who served in theatres of war, particularly in World War I.

In my husband’s ancestry, as well as my own, we have many family members involved in this terrible conflict.

As family historians our ultimate aim is to trace a life story from birth to death of each individual on our ‘family tree’. We use many sources to accomplish this, including archival records held in many places, and in many forms. It requires careful detective work as you follow up clues and leads revealed in the documents. This work is very necessary, and although time consuming, it is never boring.

 

This year I have been working on the history of our Stapleton family. Michael Stapleton of County Tipperary, Ireland, immigrated to Queensland in 1875. In 1883 he married in Townsville, Rosanna Kane, who had immigrated from County Armagh Ireland, some time before. Over the next twenty years or so they had six sons and four daughters. When war broke out in 1914, most of the family were living at Mullumbimby, in northern New South Wales. Three of these sons enlisted in the army.

 

Next year we will be celebrating 100 years since the beginning of World War I. So much has been done by Governmental Departments and other groups to help us get the most out of the available sources, by making them available on the Internet.

 

When we think of Australia’s involvement in war and conflict, we usually think of the Australian War Memorial. Their website can be found at http://www.awm.gov.au

Links from this website led me to National Archives of Australia, at http://www.naa.gov.au, for the Personal Service Record of each soldier and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, at http://www.cwgc.org/ concerning the deaths if those who died during the war, and those who died from the effects of the war.

 

I was able to find lots of records on these websites to put together the life story of these three Stapleton brothers.

 

The first to enlist in the Australian Infantry Forces was Daniel Patrick Stapleton, known as ‘Dan’. He was born in 1896, and was the third son, and sixth child, of Michael and Rose Stapleton, of Mullumbimby.

 

Dan was working as a labourer when he enlisted on 10 June 1915. He went into training and embarked for active duty overseas in August the same year. He was serving in the trenches of the Western Front in France, when he was severely wounded in the chest and head on 19 August 1916.His Casualty Service Form told the story of how he was transported from field station to various hospitals over the next few weeks and then was deemed unfit to return to his unit. He was finally returned to Australia in May 1917 and then discharged on 21 June 1917. Although he married and had a number of children, Dan’s war experiences and wounds were to dominate his life until his death in 1946. Much of this is revealed in his Personal Service Records on-line at http://www.naa.gov.au.

The second son to enlist was James Joseph Stapleton, the fourth son and seventh child of Michael and Rose Stapleton, known as ‘Jim’. He was born in 1899, but claimed to be 18 years and 1 month when he enlisted on 2 November 1915 less than five months after his elder brother.

His Service and Casualty Forms reveal a very colourful character, who was well thought of by his men. He is listed as a Gunner in the mortars in October 1916, and rose to the rank of Corporal in June 1917. He saw fighting throughout the Western Front during the worst period. He was killed in action on the Somme, just over two months before the cessation of the war. To find his full story I needed to visit the three above mentioned websites.

 

However, even more of the story was revealed by tracking down the newspapers of the time. The Northern Star (Lismore) has been digitized and is available on-line at the National Library of Australia website,at http://trove.nla.gov.au/ . There I found a newspaper article referring to James Joseph Stapleton, and how and when his parents had been advised of his death. In a later issue was a copy of a beautifully written and comforting letter from one of Jim’s comrades, telling his parents how their son was actually killed, and where and when he was buried. The Australian War Memorial also has a photograph of this serviceman on their website.

 

The third of the Stapleton brothers to enlist, was Michael. He was the eldest son and child of Michael and Rose Stapleton. He was born in Townsville in 1884, and was working as a railway fettler when he joined up in June 1917, a few days before his brother Dan arrived home. Originally he was in the 4th Pioneers, and was involved in building medical field stations and hospitals and was later transferred to the Army Medical Corps at the beginning of 1918.. He spent much of his time in England. When his brother Jim was listed as missing in action he wrote to the authorities and the Red Cross trying to get details for his parents. While he was stationed at Weymouth he met Eva Margaret Gardiner, a young English woman from Frome. They were married in March 1919.

At the end of 1918 and early 1919 Michael had bouts of illness and was hospitalized for a number of weeks each time. He finally returned to Australia in September 1919. His wife Eva Margaret Stapleton followed soon afterwards.

 

The Military service of the Stapleton family did not stop there. William Thomas Stapleton, the tenth and youngest child of Michael and Rose Stapleton was born in 1907. He grew up with the stories of his older brothers in World War I. He was only ten when his brother Jim was killed. Bill, as he was known, enlisted in the Australian Army in World War II, on the 7 July 1941. He served in New Guinea before he fell seriously ill and was returned to Australia in April 1942. He was admitted to the Tweed District Hospital where he died in September 1942.

The above mentioned records have been valuable in putting together the Life Story of each of these Stapleton family members. However, where most family historians with the above information on these men, would believe the research is now complete, for me it is not. I will now search h the archives of the local newspapers for ‘send-offs’ and ‘welcome home’ functions as well as other bits of information I might be able to find. I will be seeking photographs of the families, as well as hoping to make contact with descendants and other interested family members. Family history is never complete. There is always more.