The British Empire lost more than 700,000 service personnel in World War I, and almost three times that many were discharged because of wounds or illness that left them physically unfit for service. The service and sacrifice of more than 800,000 of these men—and women—is recognized in the collection of Silver War Badge Records, 1914–1920, now on Ancestry.
In September 1916, King George V authorized the Silver War Badge (SWB) to honor all military personnel who had served at home or overseas since 4 August 1914 and who had been discharged because of wounds or illness. The SWB was a small, circular badge made of sterling silver that bore the king’s initials, a crown, and the inscriptions ‘For King and Empire’ and ‘Services Rendered’. The badge could also be worn by personnel who were discharged because of age.
The SWB was not simply an honor; it also served a practical purpose. At the time, men of military age in England who were not obviously in the service were sometimes accosted or insulted by civilians presenting them with white feathers—a symbol of cowardice—for shirking their patriotic duty. The badge, which was worn with civilian dress, served as an outward symbol that the wearer’s duty to country had been honorably fulfilled.
Downton Abbey’s second season featured an episode where two ‘white feather girls’ crash a war fund raiser hosted by the Crawleys. When one of the girls presents a white feather to Branson, he tells her,
‘I’m in uniform.’
To which the girl replies,
One ‘coward’ who didn’t receive the white feather was renowned playwright Noël Coward, who served in the Artists Rifles and is listed on the Silver War Badge rolls:
Thousands of women appear on the rolls as well. Florence May Hall, Ella Madeline Randall, and Beatrice May Pickard all served overseas in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, which provided cooking, mechanical, clerical, and other support services. Their record indicates that they served overseas.
One thing to keep in mind as you search for your own WWI ancestor. Millions were wounded in the war—some, like J.R.R. Tolkien, so severely that they never did return to the front—but unless they were discharged, they won’t be on the Silver War Badge rolls.
The Silver War Badge rolls have always been a valuable resource, but they were not organized alphabetically and not easily searchable by name—until now. The Silver War Badge Records, 1914–1920, database brings a generation of heroes home for you to discover.