Whenever I am conducting a battlefield tour and visit one of the many cemeteries on the Western Front with a high proportion of unknown graves, I am inevitably asked if the soldiers were wearing any identification in the form of dog tags and, if so, when were the tags invented and first used.
It’s not surprising to find that the Romans were one of the first armies to issue dog tags to their soldiers. Upon joining a legion they were given a disk made of lead called a signaculum which was worn around the neck on a piece of string. This disk had the recruit’s name on it and the legion he belonged to.
By and large, armies never issued any form of official identification to its troops. However, during the savage battles that took place during the American Civil War in the 1860’s, the need for identification became apparent. Confederate and Union soldiers were writing their name and address on slips of paper and pinning them to articles of their clothing should they fall in battle.
At this time embalming had been invented and soldiers who died many miles away from home, could have their bodies preserved and shipped back to their family for burial. Before the Union army began to offer this service, an insurance policy could be purchased to have this procedure carried out should you be killed on the battlefield. To identify you, a tag was issued with your policy number inscribed upon it and worn around your neck. Once your body was found on the battlefield with this disk, you would be removed and taken to the rear where there were embalming sheds. Here your body would be treated and shipped home in a zinc lined coffin. You would be visible to your loved ones through a glass window in the lid showing head, chest and shoulders.
This embalming tag is said to have spawned the idea for dog tags to identify the troops.
In May 1862, John Kennedy from New York proposed that each Union soldier be issued with an ID tag. This idea was rejected but it did not stop soldiers on both sides from buying or making their own. And so, the premise for an ID Tag, dog-tag as it resembles those tags worn by our pets, was sown. The first army to issue its troops with dog tags was the Prussians. Their troops wore them in the 1870 Franco Prussian war and they were called ‘recognition tags’. After this, many other countries began to follow in their footsteps.
The British Army however stayed with identification cards and it was not until 1907 when the first British ‘Disk’ Identity was introduced by Army Order Number 9. This order stated that an aluminium disk would be hung from a piece of cord 42-inches in length and worn around the soldier’s neck. Each disk would be 35mm in diameter with an 8mm tab. The information stamped onto the disk would be the soldier’s number, name, regiment and religious denomination. If he changed his rank then a new disk would be issued. In 1908 these tags were also issued to special reservists.
When the first world war broke out on 4 August 1914, the army naturally began to expand in size and it became very apparent that keeping up with the supply of the aluminium disks, as well as the expense, would be a problem. So on 21 August a new disk, that the army would become familiar with over the next fifty years, would come into service. There were two disks to be worn; one was red/brown and the other was green and were approximately the same size as the original aluminium disk. Both were made out vulcanised asbestos fibre and were stamped with the same details as before. In the event that you were killed, the red tag was removed from your body and the green tag left with the body. If time was permitted the tag would be placed in the dead soldier’s mouth. Many soldiers and particularly sailors believed correctly that these new tag would not prove to be durable and some soldiers continued to wear a personal means of identification. This was usually a metal wrist bracelet worn along with the official service tag around the neck.
Unfortunately, many of the soldiers of the Great War never went to the trouble of having personal ID bracelets made or fashioned. Consequently these soldiers have never been identified as their army issued tags have simply rotted away in the soil of the Western Front.
Today’s British Army tags are made out of non magnetic surgical stainless steel and two tags are issued. One of the tags hangs on a long 24-inch chain and the other on a short 4.5-inch chain. The tags are inscribed with your blood group, service number, surname, initials and religion and are only issued to the troops when they are on active service.
So if the government had spent just a small amount of money 100 years ago, and issued our troops with metal tags, then perhaps monuments like Thiepval and the Menin Gate would not be so large and although a generation may still have been lost, they would have the proper burial that was ultimately denied them.
Lest We Forget
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