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‘Dead Man’s Penny’ found in Fort Langley

Tracie Ellerman found the 12-centimetre bronze disk next to some worn steel-toed boots in an old wooden chest in the cellar of her 100-year-old Fort Langley home.

It showed an image of Lady Britannia with the British lion and two dolphins representing Britain’s sea power standing over a defeated eagle representing Germany.

Around the outer edge of the medallion is a message:  “He died for freedom and honour” and a name; James Brition Vacher.

It was 1999, and Ellerman was in the middle of extensive renovations, so she put the disk to one side.

“I didn’t really know what it was,” Ellerman says.

“I thought it was kind of neat and hung on to it, and kind of forgot about it.”

It would be more than a decade before she would learn the origins of the disk, courtesy of Steve Cole, whose curiosity led him to conduct some online research.

What he found out has led the couple to mount a determined search for the family of the man named on the disk.

He was, it turns out, a soldier who fought and died during the First World War.

James Brition Vacher was 18 years old when he signed up with the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force on August 30, 1915.

The 5’6” brown-haired, blue-eyed Vacher gave his place of birth as Carlyle, Saskatchewan, but he enlisted in Vernon, B.C.

He gave his profession as “butter maker” and on the form where he was supposed to list his next-of-kin, he wrote down his grandmother “Mrs. Ham” and said she lived in Clayburn, a small community located three miles northeast of Abbotsford at the time.

Private Vacher was killed in action on September 26, 1916, three days before he would have turned 20.

He was laid to rest in the Regina Trench Cemetery in  France, which means he likely perished during the Battle of the Ancre Heights, when Canadian soldiers waged a  back-and-forth campaign to wrestle control of the trench away from the Germans.

It was part of the Battle of the Somme, the Allied offensive against the Germans which resulted in more than one million casualties and has come to be known as one of the bloodiest military operations ever recorded.

Vacher is one of 564 Canadian soldiers laid to rest in the cemetery that straddles the location of the infamous trench.

The medallion with his name is called a Dead Man’s Penny or a Blood Penny and was cast in bronze gunmetal.

Presented to the next-of-kin of the men and women who died during the First World War, it deliberately omits the rank of the slain soldier to show equality in their sacrifice.

It is usually accompanied by a scroll and a message from King George V, that said “I join with my grateful people in sending you this memorial of a brave life given for others in the Great War.”

Just over 1.1 million were produced after the war.

Ellerman and Cole want to return the penny to the surviving relatives of the late Vacher, but their search has hit a wall.

They know that Vacher’s name is on the Abbotsford Cenotaph, but they have been unable to determine if he has any family in the area.

Ellerman says the fact Vacher listed his grandmother as next-of-kin may mean that he had no other living relatives, but she and Cole are hoping that isn’t the case.

“I would love to think that there’s someone out there,” Ellerman says.

“If it belonged to someone in my family, I would love to get it back,” Cole says.

If you have any information that would help Ellerman and Cole (pictured above with chest) reunite the medallion with the Vacher family, email tracie_e@telus.net.

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