The Identification Tag (the dog-tag) is perhaps one of the most personal of all issue items to be carried by the majority of soldiers of the Great War, yet they also appear to be one of the most under-studied and neglected areas of research. Maybe they're not as "pretty" as a medal, but they are just as researchable (if not more so because of the information that they contain). They also have the added poignancy of the fact that they were "there" throughout all the trials and tribulations of the original owner ... even, on occasion, staying with him up until (and after) his death. Nothing can hit home harder than thinking about the feelings of some anonymous soldier's wife as she receives the blood-stained tags that were worn by her recently departed husband. They might only rarely receive pride of place above some mantle (more likely, they've been lost in some drawer bottom or pocket ... or even put in the waste binn in the blink of an eye), as this seems to be the place reserved for the "shiny" mementoes such as badges and medals. No-one, it seems, wants to see a framed disc of ugly red fibre. A medal (always issued after an event, sometimes never even having been seen or touched by the "recipient") could, I suppose, be classified as a "memento", whereas the tag was actually there at the event and can sometimes be the only tangible link to the actual person who wore it.
Although some form of identification (other than details written on equipment and uniforms) had been carried by many soldiers for centuries (using materials from paper labels to carved stones and pieces of wood), the Great War was the first war in which the majority of belligerents were officially issued with and wore these tags or discs continuously. However, it may be prudent to begin with a listing of dates and events that were significant to their development pre-1914.
- 1862 In May, John Kennedy from New York proposed that each Union soldier is issued with an ID tag. The motion was rejected, but many soldiers of both sides provided their own or purchased them from Sutlers (many of these can be extremely ornate and detailed).
- 1864 Following the German-Danish War, a Berlin master-craftsman proposed the issue of a "Hundesmarke" (literally "Dog-tag") named after the existing dog-tax tag but this was all but rejected by the Prussian War Ministry (and also gave birth to the story of Koenig Wilhelm flying into a rage about the unsubtle naming of the tag: "my soldiers are not dogs!"). Whether or not this is true, the name "Hundesmarke" was certainly forbidden in later years (which only served, of course, to encourage its use by the soldiers who wore them!).
- 1866 Some Prussian units were issued with such a tag as a trial (unsubstantiated), but many (most?) were discarded by the troops in a superstitious fear of death. Some eight months after the Battle of Koniggratz (Sadowa) of 3 July 1866, the identity of approximately 1,500 soldiers (out of 2,200 Prussian dead) had not yet been established, thus forcing another push for the establishment to issue some form of Army-wide identity tag.
- 1868 A book entitled "Das Preussische Militar-Sanitatswesen und seine Reform nach der Kriegserfahrung von 1866" by the Royal Prussian Surgeon-General, Dr.Loeffler, mentions the possible uses of a metal identity tag in the treatment of wounded soldiers (along with the uses of being able to positively identify battlefield dead). This work was highly influential and was taken into account the following year.
- 1869 Article 110 of the Prussian regulations of the Army Medical Services in the Field dated 29 April 1869 finally stated that an issued sheet metal tag was to be worn around the neck, suspended by a cord , upon which the soldier's serial number and unit was to be inscribed. This, according the article, was "...in order to positively establish the identity of soldiers killed on the battlefield or found unconscious...".
- 1870 The first ever issue of an official identity tag (the Recognoscirungsmarke - "recognition tag") is to the combatant troops of the German Armies of Prussia, the NGC and their allies upon mobilisation for the invasion of France (some 883,000 combatants, only 470,000 of whom were "Prussian") out of a total mobilisation strength of 1,183,000)
- 1878 On 10 April of this year, Article 26 of the German Wartime Medical Regulations stated the necessity of an Army-wide tag to be issued to all troops, even those of non-combatant units.
Many countries followed Germany's example in the following years: France in 1881 and Belgium in 1889 being, perhaps, the earliest. Most other nations didn't follow suit until the early twentieth century: Austria and Russia in 1902 (though some Russian studies claim an introduction as far back as 1877), Britain in 1907, although the British did have a waterproofed "identity card" (or, using its official designation - a "description card") in a pocket inside the tunic from the 1890s - the A.F. B2067, USA in 1906 and Italy in 1915 etc. However, many soldiers had "private purchase" tags and bracelets made for themselves prior (and post) these official issues (a subject which is highly worthy of its own separate study). During the First World War, it is interesting to note that a huge quantity of these bracelets actually utilised blank discs that were on official issue to other nations (the French Mle.1881 seeming to be especially popular with British and US soldiers).
The first British "Disc, Identity" was introduced by Army Order 9 of January 1907 (please see appendices). This order stated that "An identity disc (aluminium), fitted with a cord (42 inches in length) was to be worn around the neck and underneath the clothing." It also gave instructions on the stamping of these discs in that stampings were to be carried out by "Stamps, steel, for metal 1/8th inch" and that information carried should be the soldier's number, rank, name, regiment and religious denomination. Upon a change in rank, a new disc was to be issued. These discs were stamped from thin aluminium sheet and measured approximately 35mm in diameter with an 8mm "tab".
Prior to the outbreak of the Great War, there were at least three changes to the stamping and issue of Identity Discs...
AO 102 of May 1907 (please see appendices) introduced some slight changes to issue of the discs and dropped the stamping of ranks on them.
AO 83 of April 1908 (please see appendices) mentioned the issue of discs for special reservists.
Religious denomination stampings on Territorial Force discs were also dropped (though this was rarely adhered to).
With the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914, it was realised that it would be practically impossible to keep up with the demand (and expense of) aluminium discs and so, on 21 August 1914 , a new disc that would become so familiar over the next half century was introduced. The new disc was a round disc made of red/brown vulcanised asbestos fibre approximately 35mm in diameter. Stamping regulations were as per AO 102 of 1907.
Though the new disc was now being issued, stockpiles of the aluminium discs were also being issued and so it isn't uncommon to encounter aluminium discs marked up to soldiers who didn't enlist until 1915.
Even though a new disc was now being issued, most soldiers were still only issued with one. This led to many post-mortem problems in the identification of the dead in that the one disc was being removed (as was regulation) for administrative purposes, leaving the body devoid of identification. The majority of soldiers acquired "private purchase" discs (usually in the form of a bracelet) and others obtained a second issue disc (on rare occasions, a blank disc can be encountered that, due to the unavailability of stamp sets, details have been written in ink). Though extremely widespread, these second discs were still unofficial. It wasn't until after the Directorate of the Commission of Graves Registration and Enquiries suggested (following the French example of the previous year) the issue of a second identity disc in May 1916, and the eventual issue of Army Order 287 of September 1916, that the British Army heeded to the necessity of issuing a disc that was to remain on a body after death for future identification. The second disc was also of vulcanised asbestos fibre, but was manufactured in a green/brown shade and was an "octagonal - lozenge" in shape approximately 35mm by 30mm in size. This disc, in Army parlance, now became "Disc, identity, No 1, green", with the original (1914) disc becoming "Disc, Identity, No 2, red". The No 1 disc was to be attached to the long cord around the neck, with the No 2 being threaded on a 6 inch cord from this disc. No 1 was intended to remain on the body whereas the No 2 was to be removed for administration. Stampings on this new disc were similar to previous issues. November 1916 saw this disc on general issue.
Although there were further issues of discs for equipment marking, etc from 1917, the "official" British identity disc evolution during the war was now complete. There was no further change in discs until 1920 and, therefore, outside the scope of this study. RN discs followed suit with the Army discs.
Apart from the official issue an "emergency pattern" disc in August 1914 (a large aluminium disc), Canadian discs, stamping patterns apart, followed the British style. By November 1916, the Canadian 1914 pattern disc had pretty much been superseded completely by the British patterns
Australia , India, New Zealand and South Africa
Australia and India followed the British patterns completely, but the 1907 disc appears to have been issued for far longer than in the British Army. Many discs issued as late as 1917 can be encountered stamped with Australian or Indian army detail. High quality 1907 discs (quite often engraved rather than stamped) are also found. Made of double thickness, these have the Australian coat of arms stamped out of the reverse. As far as can be ascertained, these may possibly be "souvenir" tags rather than issue items (and perhaps, therefore, "private purchase"). Interestingly, the AIF discs encountered appear to have a higher percentage of "1907/1916 pairs" than in any other force.
New Zealand and South Africa both followed the British pattern from the issue of the asbestos vulcanised fibre discs in 1914 (apart from the "NZ" and "SA" stampings in large letters that appears on the majority of these issues), but both nations also issued their own patterns initially - both of similar design to the Canadian emergency tag (but, in this case, they can also be encountered as having been manufactured out of thin, pressed steel).
As has been detailed in the opening section of this article, Germany (more specifically Prussia, Bavaria and the nations of the NGC) was the first country to issue official identity discs to its soldiers on a wide scale during the Franco-German War of 1870-71. A pressed steel rectangle approximately 4cm by 3cm in size, this disc always had rolled edges and certain regimental details pre-stamped during manufacture. The number of the regiment, along with company and personal numbers were hand-stamped upon issue and only issued during war-time (therefore there was only ever one issue of this disc before it was superseded in 1878).
On 10 January 1878, as a response to the increased size of the German Army in time of war (and the April 1878 directive to issue discs to non-combatant troops also), the 1869 pattern disc was replaced by a disc of far simpler manufacture. The disc of 1878 (the Erkennungsmarke) was a simple zinc alloy oval of similar dimensions to the disc of 1869 which was issued blank (all detail was stamped at regimental level). Information carried upon these discs was also of the same nature as the previous issue but, with the exception of Bavarian discs, no longer carried national/state designation (though the neck cords were quite often manufactured in state colours).
This was the disc that German soldiers were still wearing upon the outbreak of war in August 1914 after which a myriad of different shapes, sizes and styles of this disc could be encountered (round, rectangular, one cord hole, two cord holes, elongated, stamped, inscribed, different details included, manufactured from different metals, etc, etc)
Possibly due to the huge size of the German Army in the field, it was becoming clear that, along with the difficulties of identifying dead and wounded soldiers purely from the details on the 1878 tags (whereby a certain amount of cross-referencing with records would be necessary), tags were having to be re-issued at an increasing rate due to regimental or even company transfers. It was therefore decided, in September 1915 (following on from Regulation 72822-V-B1 issued by the Prussian War Ministry on 13 August 1915), to issue a larger pattern disc upon which it would be possible to include more personal detail (preventing the need for as much record checking) and also have room to strike out old unit details and replace them with the new.
These new discs were still oval, but now measured approximately 7cm by 5cm and contained the soldier's name, date of birth and home town details along with his regimental details. From this point, recruit unit details may also be found (often located on the reverse of the disc). Details of the soldier's previous units may also be found (blanked or "lined out" upon transfer).
Even after the issue of the 1915 disc, there remained the problem of post-mortem identification of soldiers. Upon death, the identity disc was removed for records, leaving the body with no identification. Even though it would be known that the particular soldier was dead, if the body was not able to be recovered until later (for whatever reason), there would be no way, especially if discovered by a different unit, that identification could be given to the corpse. The first attempts at solving this problem was done at a regimental/company level by stamping the identical details onto a 1915 disc twice, separated by a score mark. The intention of this was to break the disc in half, taking half (with full details) for records and leaving the other half (also with full details) on the body should the need for future identification arise.
As may be imagined, this stop-gap solution was far from ideal as it could be difficult to break the disc by hand and, even if that was accomplished, a straight break was even more difficult. Therefore, in November 1916 (Prussian War Ministry regulation 1727/8 16B of 16 November 1916), a new pattern disc was introduced in which the "split line" was stamped into the disc upon manufacture. This 1916 disc (note there was a very slight change to these discs proposed in a War Ministry communiqué dated 16 September 1917* which suggested slight sizing changes and also a change to the spacings of perforations, enabling a stronger construction to the disc) was to see the German Army throughout the remainder of the war (though all other patterns can also be encountered to the very end) and, with slight alterations (such as personal detail being dropped in 1926), throughout the Second World War also. The legacy of this pattern disc still survives in many of the modern armies today.
Dimension-wise, the 1916 disc was pretty much identical to the 1915 disc. Similar detail was contained either side of the serration and, again, recruit detail may also be found on the reverse. As with all German discs, much variety in shape, size and material can be encountered, but the 1916 disc appears to have been the most "standardised" of them all.
(* this "1917 Pattern" disc is not recognised by many collectors and historians as a separate pattern possibly because its issue was never officially regulated. Some manufacturers did, however, produce discs to the specifications suggested in 1917 and so, though, not really an "official" pattern, they do exist)
Other Nations who adopted German pattern ID tags:
- Bulgaria (adopted the 1915 pattern from 1916 for the remainder of the war)
- Turkey (adopted the 1915 pattern in 1916, though the 1878 pattern is also encountered)
After the rebirth of the French Army following their defeat in the Franco-German War of 1870/71, much in-depth investigation was made regarding the French performance and experiences. The French medical services noted, with comparative tables, the numbers of missing and unidentified dead from the French Army as compared with those of the German Army during this conflict. Though the figures were still high, in percentage terms, it was possible to see the improvement in post-death identifications within the German armies when compared to those of the French. For this reason, it was decided to introduce an officially-issued identity disc to the French Army also. This issue became official from September 1881when a single metal disc was issued, designed to be worn, with a cord, around the neck.
The French Modele 1881 tag was a small aluminium or steel oval approximately 3cm by 2cm in size with one hole for attachment of the neck cord. Information stamped upon the disc included (on the obverse) the soldier's surname and first name along with his "class" year (ie the year in which he became eligible for compulsory military service). On the reverse was to be found his military district (as related to place of birth, not necessarily that of residence) and his matricule number.
On 14 May 1915, due to the post-death identification problems previously discussed, the French Ministry of War ordered the official issue of a second identity disc. This second disc was identical to the first, but had two cord holes to facilitate it being worn as a bracelet on the wrist. Some soldiers strung it with the first disc (as in the post-1916 British style) and others pinned it to the clothing - usually either on the inside of the tunic or on the trousers in the area of the belt. Occasionally, the second disc issue was identical in all ways to the first (one hole) and can be found being worn on a second neck cord (subsequently a directive of November 1916 insisted on some form of regimentation in wear and suggested that both discs should be worn on a single neck cord).
Another problem was still being encountered with these discs, however. The (mainly) aluminium discs were found to corrode easily and quickly after burial and so, on 27 April 1916, maillechort (a zinc and copper alloy) discs of identical detail to the aluminium discs became available in an attempt to counter this problem.
Although the Mle1881 soldiered on for the remainder of the war and beyond, a new pattern disc was introduced in May 1918. This Mle1918 took in the advantages of the German 1916 pattern disc in that it had a perforated line so that one part could be removed for records, leaving the remainder to identify the corpse, but only utilising one disc. The information stamped onto the disc was repeated on both halves and was the same as that to be found on the Mle1881. The Mle1881, in some cases, also continued to be worn in conjunction with this new disc.
Measuring 4cm by 3cm, these discs can be encountered manufactured out of aluminium, maillechort, steel and even silver. Intended to be worn on the wrist, they were quite often also worn around the neck. An extremely successful design, it was copied throughout the world and was still on issue to French forces as late as the early 1960s.
Mle 1881 blanks were encountered in, and adopted by, several armies, making it the most widespread of all the WW1 tags. Other nations who used French pattern tags were:
- Serbia (used 1881 pattern after 1915)
- Belgium (1881 pattern after 1915)
- Czechoslovakia (Mle 1881 in use with the Czech Legion)
- Poland (Mle1918 between1918-1920)
- Greece (Mle 1881)
- Siam (Mle 1881 from July 1918)
The USA, UK, Italy and Portugal all also commonly adopted the Mle1881 style as unofficial "private purchase" tags.
Although they had not really directly experienced the need for the issue of an identity disc, the Belgian military closely studied France's experiences in and following the 1870-71 War and could see the potential for use. For this reason the Belgian Army, in 1889, issued its own pattern identity disc which, although not identical, closely resembled that of the French.
Of similar dimensions (although it was slightly elongated for the cord attachment ) and construction to the French Mle 1881, the Belgian Mle 1889 contained the same information with the exception of "class year". The Mle 1889 also included the soldier's regimental detail which was omitted on French discs.
After the major part of Belgium, including practically all of the industrial centres, was over-run by the Germans in 1914, the remains of the Belgian Army became much reliant on its allies for aid in clothing and equipping its troops. This also included a need for identity discs from allied nations. There were some (rare) issues of the British 1914 discs, but this was miniscule when compared with the amount of Mle1881 discs supplied by the French. So many were supplied from 1915 onwards that the French disc became officially designated the Mle 1915 when in Belgian Army use. It was with this French disc (containing the same information as the Mle 1889) that the Belgian Army fought much of (and ended) the war. Some troops in 1918 were also in receipt of the French Mle 1918 disc which was copied by the Belgian Army at the very end of the war and, with slight design changes, became the official Belgian Mle 1918 which was worn into World War 2.
Austria adopted a version of transportable identification for its soldiers in 1902. This consisted of a brass rectangular locket 5cm by 3cm in size designed to be sewn or clipped by a loop inside the trouser pocket. Inside the locket was carried a paper insert (in German for KuK troops and in Hungarian for those of the Honved). Details on this paper included regimental details, class year, personal details such as home town, birth year, religion, place of enlistment and medical records including such details as inoculations and wounds, etc. In short, a miniature version of the soldier's whole service record was carried by him at all times.
Due to a wartime shortage of brass, a zinc version was encountered from 1915. This was sealed by a clip and also, along with the paper insert, included basic details stamped to the case (possibly in an attempt to continue the chance of identification even after the paperwork has become water- or decay-damaged post-burial. A final version was made in 1918. This was a much simplified version made of a single piece of cheap pressed tin. This had to tied at the loop to keep it shut. Due to its frailty, not many examples of these survive today.
On entry into the war in 1915, the Italian Army was one of the few European armies that had never considered an identity disc as a means of identification for its soldiers. Shortly after the declaration of war, however, the Italians saw the need to rectify this deficiency and immediately began looking for ideas. Their nearest neighbours (and enemy!) Austria gave them the idea that they needed and so the officially-issued Italian identity tag was a direct copy of the Austrian locket.
The Italian locket was slightly smaller than that of Austria. Measuring 4cm by 3cm, this locket was made of pressed steel, coated and polished with a mirror-like finish on the inside (to double as a mirror for everyday use and signalling). An elongated paper slip was folded up inside, again (like the Austrian version) carrying a highly condensed version of the soldier's entire service record.
Although it is widespread assumption that the identification of the Russian dead was a very low priority for the Tsarist military, this was only really true after the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 and the huge expansion of the newly mobilised force (which meant some 75% of Russian troops entered the field with no form of personal identification). As far back as 1902, it had become procedure for some form of identification marker to be issued, on a regimental level, to all soldiers. This regimental issue was self-funded and therefore the designs vary enormously (some regiments, it must be said, didn't bother with any issue at all).
In 1909, an army-wide issue was put forward. The tag of 1909 took the guise of a wooden phial that was designed to contain a slip of paper detailing the soldier to whom it was issued. Supposedly carried in a pocket it was, perhaps, unfortunate that, to the mainly illiterate soldiers, they appeared better suited for carrying matches than they did for personal identification (a problem that was made more severe in World War 2 when these phials were made of a sealed, screw-top bakelite which made them even more waterproof).
Russian soldiers serving in France, however, were better catered for, receiving the Mle1881 discs of their host army.
The USA would have been the first nation to have adopted Identity Discs back in 1862 if the notion hadn't been rejected. US troops therefore, like most of their European counterparts , had either no identification (other than in paper form) or supplied their own (private purchase tags from the Civil War, China Expedition and Spanish-American War appear in abundance). However, on 20 December 1906 , the War Department General Order number 204 officially sanctioned the first authorised US identity disc. This disc was a small circular aluminium disc, 3cm in diameter, that contained the soldier's name, rank, unit and the letters "USA" ("United States Army"). It was worn around the neck on a thin bandage-like cotton ribbon.
In 1910 a tag was issued that was identical to the 1906 pattern in all ways except size. The 1910 tag measured 3.5cm in diameter. Both 1906 and 1910 pattern tags were, from this date on, issued in similar numbers and can be encountered relatively equally. There was one more change before the USA entered the war. Possibly due to reports from the nations already involved in the war or possibly due to experiences in Mexico, a second disc was introduced on 6 July 1916. From this date, the first disc (whether of 1906 or 1910 pattern) had two holes to facilitate the attachment of the second disc.
The US Navy introduced its own disc on 12 May 1917, shortly after the US declaration of war. This disc, constructed of monel metal (the same as ships' propellers) and measuring 3.5cm by 3cm, detailed the sailor's name, date of birth , general unit ("USN", "USNR", "USMC", etc) and date of enlistment. On the rear was featured an impression of his thumb print. All this detail was acid etched into place rather than stamped.
With the expansion of and formation of the National Army, official pattern discs were becoming in short supply. On 13 August 1917 it became necessary to introduce a more quickly manufactured disc to keep up with demand until the machinery used to make the standard patterns could catch up. This 1917 pattern Emergency Disc was 3cm square and had a single cord hole. Detail was similar to that of the standard issues. Supply of this pattern dwindled into 1918 as the supply of standard discs caught up.
Issue discs remained pretty much unaltered for the rest of the war but there was a couple of changes to detail. On 12 February 1918 serial numbers were introduced and, from then on, these were to be stamped on the rear of the discs and, in July 1918 unit details were to be omitted from discs. Orders were distributed at this time for discs that had the soldier's unit information detailed on them to be destroyed and replaced or to have the details blanked (or "X'd") out. In reality, this only happened on a large scale in combatant units. The same month also saw the soldier's religion appearing on discs (at personal choice).
The US Marine Corps received either Naval or Army discs depending on their particular role. USMC (Army) discs utilised the Naval practice of including enlistment dates. USMC (Naval) discs were as per USN
- Adopted ID Tags in 1905 just after the Russo-Japanese War (the "Type 38").
- Brass Oval 4.5cm by 3cm in size.
- Pattern remained unchanged until after 1945.
No official identity tag issued until the adoption of the German patterns. 1915 pattern is most commonly encountered, but 1878 (usually of a round (possibly rejected) pattern) and (more rarely) 1916s can also be found.
As a result of an article in The Illustrated War News a modern misconception has been that Turkish "signature seals" were actually used as an ID tag.
As above. German M1915s being most common.
A thin metal plate sewn into the tunic until the adoption of the French Mle 1881.
An irremovable steel bracelet, upon which was engraved the labourer's number, was riveted around his wrist.
Tags similar to French Mle 1881 and/or British patterns issued. Occasionally tags similar to British "No.2" disc can be encountered, quite often made of wood!
Officer's Identity discs
This study has concentrated on the tags and discs issued to the "other ranks" of the various belligerent nations. However, for the sake of completion, a passing reference should be made to the tags issued to officers.
Many officers of most armies either had to pay for their kit themselves or received an allowance to enable them to purchase items. Although many officers also purchased their own tags (as did other ranks in all fairness, but these tended to be supplementary to the issue items), most also received officially issued discs. In the majority of cases, all that was different between an officer's disc and that of a lesser rank was the inscription (on a French officer's disc, for example, the date of birth is included rather than the "class year").
Contributor: David O'Mara
Discuss this article on The WFA Front Forum
German WW1 Identity Tags/Disks - Peter Meinlschmidt
Militaria Magazine - numbers 97, 101, 268
L'Armee Allemande - Martin et Pont (1903)
"Armed Forces ID tags" (Military Collector & Historian 24 nr 4) - P.Braddock
History of Identity Tags (Quarter Master Professional Bulletin, Dec.1988) - Capt. R.W.Woollen
Handbook of the German Army April 1918 - Gen. Staff
200 Questions & Answers about the War - Doran co. NY.
Official History of the War, Military Operations France & Belgium 1916 Vol 1
De la Mort a la Memoire - Yann Thomas 2008