What is an ‘On War Service’ badge and who might have worn one?
These small, metal pin badges were worn by civilians during the First World War in order to indicate that the person wearing it was on engaged in important war-work.
Several of these badges were officially produced and distributed nationally but many more were produced privately by employing companies to support their employees.
Why were ‘On War Service’ badges necessary?
Before conscription was introduced in 1916, the army relied on voluntary recruitment. It was assumed by many that a man not in uniform was avoiding joining up and was therefore often accused of shirking their duty to their country. The famous white feather campaign saw men not in uniform presented with a white feather as a symbol of cowardice.
The official badges were intended to prove that the wearer was doing their duty to their country in a time of war in a different way. They were not in uniform, but they may have been working in munitions factories or in the dockyards carrying out work that was vital to the war effort.
After conscription, the need for these badges faded, along with the white feather campaign. However, many continued to be worn throughout the war, especially by female shift workers for whom the badge could give priority boarding and fare concessions on public transport, as well as indicating that there was nothing disreputable about these ladies travelling alone at night.
On War Service 1914 badge
The On War Service badge 1914 was issued by the Admiralty to ‘workmen whose services are indispensable for rapid completion of HM ships and armaments’.
On War Service 1915 badge
The On War Service 1915 badge was issued by the Ministry of Munitions. The earliest versions of these badges have blue enamel similar to the 1914 badge, but the enamel was abandoned in favour of a plain brass stamped design when the scale of the issue requirements became clear.
On War Service 1916 badge
This triangular shaped badge issued after conscription in 1916 by the Ministry of Munitions. It was intended solely for women engaged in urgent war work. A clue to this fact is that the previous versions of the badge intended for men have a button hole fitting on the back. The 1916 triangular badge has a pin like a brooch for women.
The badges do have a unique number on the back and there would have been a register that recorded the issue of these badges although it has not been found. So, there is little more that can be discovered about individuals from these badges alone. However, they can of course give clues as to a person’s role in the war effort, if it is known who it belonged to.
Useful websites and books for further research
‘On War Service’ Badges 1914–1919 the official issues
A private researcher’s webpage that gives detail on the official ‘On War Service’ badges.
Sally Bosley’s Badge Shop
Online dealers’ website, dedicated page – hundreds of badges from many private companies illustrated, so a good visual source. No specific recommendation of the dealer, or the valuations given, is to be inferred.
Copies of all these books can be freely consulted from open shelves at the Explore History Centre at IWM London.
Great War Medal Collectors Companion by Howard Williamson
(Anne Williamson, Harwich, Essex, 2011)
Includes details on both official and unofficial OWS badges on p542–556.