Rebecca Drummond

As the years 2014 to 2018 mark one hundred years since the First World War, I thought it would be appropriate to tell a related object story.

These ‘On War Service’ badges were issued in 1914 and 1915 to James Wardlaw, an employee of the shipbuilders William Denny and Brothers. Civilians wore such badges during the First World War to show that although they were not in the armed forces, they were still contributing to the war effort.


Before the introduction of conscription in 1916, army recruitment was purely voluntary. This resulted in many men not in uniform being accused of shirking their duty. The unregulated nature of voluntary recruitment also meant that large numbers of skilled men joined up, leaving some companies essential to the war effort lacking a trained workforce.

Shortly after the outbreak of war in July 1914, companies in industries such as shipbuilding, railway, and munitions started to produce unofficial war service badges. The aim of “badging” was partly to help retain skilled workers, and also to show that the wearer was contributing to the war effort. To begin with, the issuing of badges was largely unmonitored by the government although companies were required to maintain a register of whom they had given them to.

The badges proved popular and by 1916 there were three official types of ‘On War Service’ badge in use: the ‘1914’ badge issued by the Admiralty; the ‘1915’ badge issued by the Ministry of Munitions; and the ‘1916’ badge for women employed in essential war work.

James Wardlaw had both an official and unofficial badge. The one on the left is an ‘On War Service 1914’ badge which was given to ‘workmen whose services are indispensible for rapid completion of HM ships and armaments’. On the right is an unofficial badge given by Denny Brothers to their employees. It is likely the designation ‘O.H.M.S’ (On Her Majesty’s Service) was used without permission. In March 1915, the War Office issued a memorandum stating that only official badges would allow the wearer to avoid compulsory military service. A further instruction in August 1915 ordered companies that had been allowed to issue their own badges to withdraw them and give out official ones instead.

Reverse of 'On War Service Badges'
Each of the badges has a unique number on the reverse identifying them as belonging to James Wardlaw.

James Wardlaw was employed in the Engine Works at William Denny and Brothers. During the First World War they produced many vessels for the Royal Navy. This included two flotilla leaders, three ‘E’ Class submarines, and two hospital paddle steamers. In particular, their experience of building pioneering turbine-powered steamers was put to good use and they delivered a torpedo-boat destroyer every eight weeks. They also contributed to the war effort in other ways, such as through the production of artificial limbs for war-wounded servicemen by their Joiners’ Shop.

The submarine E55 under construction at William Denny and Brothers shipyard in 1915
The submarine E55 under construction at William Denny and Brothers shipyard in 1915

You can find out more about the history of shipbuilding at Denny and Brothers shipyard by visiting the Denny Ship Model Experiment Tank in Dumbarton. For visitor information, please click here:

For information on the people who worked at Denny and Brothers please contact the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich or the National Archives, Kew.