LONDON, U.K. — The extreme cost of war is a mother’s heartbreak. For one north London family the losses were unimaginable with four boys drafted to the trenches.
Every British family who lost someone was sent a bronze memorial plaque. Families now cherish the medals left behind. For more than 100 hundred years the medal for Charles Leopold Shallis has been passed down along with old newspaper cuttings, now yellow with age… and a few old black and white photos.
During the war, the bronze discs were known as the “dead man’s penny,” and every family dreaded receiving one.
The Shallis family of north London received four. The medallions all looked the same… but look closely, the Christian names are different.
The family’s grievous loss made it into a national newspaper, the Daily Sketch in 1916. The article came with the headline: “Sons who upheld the traditions of a fighting family.” From left to right — Bert, Leo, Harry, and George — the Shallis boys.
Kate Shallis, niece of the Shallis boys has kept onto their memory.
“Two of them died within the same week. For my grandmother, you just think, how did she cope?” said Shallis.
The oldest boy, George Shallis, was in the Royal Navy when a ship went down after it hit a sea mine off Ireland in 1915.
He was 26 and left a widow.
Bert Shallis, an army private, was killed in action at Gallipoli, in what is now Turkey, again in 1915.
He was 21.
Harry Shallis, also an infantryman, died on the western front in France — again in 1915.
He was the youngest of the four — just 20.
Leo Shallis — like George — died in the navy. He was in the battle of Jutland in 1916 when his ship was shelled and sunk.
He was 24.
Their parents — corporal George Shallis and his wife, Kate — were pictured alongside their boys in the newspaper.
To this day, their grief remains unfathomable — especially the mother’s.
Four sons lost in less than a year and a half.
Just after that, men arrived at their house in north London with call-up papers for their fifth son, Jack.
Kate Shallis, niece of the Shallis boys said: “My grandmother came out with a broom or a mop. She basically told them to get off her path. They had had four of her sons. Didn’t they think that was enough?”
Kate Shallis fiercely stood her ground.
A military tribunal made a rare exception. In 1917, it was decided that Jack didn’t have to fight.
Ten years later — in 1927 — Kate Shallis was invited to the annual Remembrance Day at the cenotaph in London.
She was photographed, proudly wearing her sons’s campaign medals.
She reflected on the day in a national newspaper.
She the mother wrote: “I felt that the king and queen and I and the masses of people were just one big family, thinking together the same dear thoughts of our million sons who died for us… I could see the queen’s face quite clearly… I felt she was proud of my four boys who gave their lives for king and country. I felt proud of my four sons and their courage. I felt proud that I was their mother.”
Kate Shallis’s uncles died long before she was ever born.
She’s inherited their memorial plaques.
They’ve been polished for the centenary of the armistice, these ‘ dead man’s pennies’, remain eternally symbolic of the slaughter and the sacrifice of war.