The identity disc is arguably the most personal of all the multitude of items issued to soldiers in WWI. Worn at all times around the neck and underneath the clothing the identity discs accompanied the soldier everywhere, from his enlistment, through training to his theatre of war and through the familiar routine of front line, support and rest. They absorbed the sweat of his labours and sometimes the blood of his wounds. In the event of his death ‘in the Field’ they identified him for appropriate burial in the faith he declared on enlistment and many discs found their way home to grieving relatives in his personal effects. While to many collecting identity discs and bracelets is not the most exciting field of militaria they can offer fascinating avenues of research as well as being very evocative personal items. This article will cover a very brief history of the evolution of personal identification in the British Army.
Army Order 9 of January 1907 introduced the first identity disc in stamped aluminium. 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 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’ through which the neck cord passed. There were changes to the stampings on the discs which included dropping the stamping of ranks and religious denomination. The outbreak of WWI and the huge and rapid expansion of the Army made the continued use of the aluminium disc unrealistic and expensive so on 21 August 1914a new disc was introduced. The new disc was circular and made of red/ brown vulcanised asbestos fibre approximately 35mm in diameter. The stamping conventions adhered to the conventions and subsequent changes under the Army Order 1907. Despite the change the aluminium disc continued to issued and worn into 1915 often in conjunction with the red fibre disc.
It became quickly apparent that issuing only one disc presented problems in identification of the dead. Regulations stipulated that the single disc was to be removed from the body which left it without any means of identification. As a result the British Army issued a second octagonal disc under Army Order 287 of September 1916. The second disc was also of the same material as the circular disc, but was manufactured in a green/ brown shade and was approximately 35mm by 30mm in size. The discs were officially referred to as ‘Disc, identity, No 1, green’, with the original circular disc becoming ‘Disc, Identity, No 2, red’. The No 1 disc was attached to the long cord around the neck, with the No 2 being threaded on a six-inch cord from this disc. The
No 1 disc (green) was intended to remain on the body whereas the No 2(red) was to be removed for administration. Stampings on this new disc were similar to previous issues.
The early absence of a robust system of identification resulted in a proliferation of privately made and engraved identity bracelets that were in the main worn on the wrist. The bracelets were made from a range of materials ranging from solid silver, aluminium, coins, brass and copper. Identity bracelets made in the bazaars of Baghdad in what was then Mesopotamia are particularly ornate. Bracelets were also occasionally adorned with religious tokens such as crucifixes or more martial tokens like bullets.
Occasionally issue fibre discs can be found with crude hand inscribed details. I have made the assumption that these were produced when originals were lost and the punch stamps well behind the lines.
As far as collecting WWI identity discs is concerned they can still be found relatively easily and in most instances at very reasonable prices although officers’ discs and those from desirable units such as the RFC and Tank Corps can command much higher prices.
As the pattern of discs that started in WWI extended into the 1970s it is perhaps worthwhile giving some pointers on identifying the key differences between WWI and later discs. WWI discs always have the Regiment or Corps stamped on the disc and in most instances this will be abbreviated. The other significant difference is the service numbers on WWI discs will be between one and six digits. Identity bracelets are less easy to find and the prices tend to reflect the unit, the material they are made of and how ornately they are engraved, especially in the case of those made in the bazaars.
Further research into this subject can be found in the excellent publications listed in the Bibliography and from the Great War Forum and Western Front Association. Both of these organisations are full of helpful experts.