Saturday, 20 September 2014

First World War British Army identity discs

I was in Cambridge in the week and popped into G. David's bookshop, emerging a short while later with a coffee table book on the CWGC and Richard van Emden's The Quick & The Dead. In the latter, on page 136, Richard talks about identity discs. I hadn't realised that it was an Army Council Instruction of 1916 that introduced the two discs which most of us will be familiar with: the red circular disc (to be removed in the vent of death) and the octagonal green disc (to be left on the man's body). I thought it might be an idea to provide some brief information on identity discs for the British Army in the run up to and during, the First World War.

January 1907
Army Order 9 states that an aluminium identity disc fitted with a 42 inch cord is to be worn around the neck and underneath the clothing. The disc should contain the soldier's number, rank, name, regiment and religious denomination. A change in regiment or rank would result in a new disc being issued.

May 1907
Army Order 102 introduces slight changes to the above including the dropping of rank. (So if you have an aluminium disc with a soldier's rank on it, you can date it quite precisely).

April 1908
Army Order 83 authorised the issue of discs to Special Reservists and also authorised the dropping of religious denomination on discs issued to men serving with the Territorial Force.

21st August 1914
A new, red/brown disc 35mm in diameter and made of vulcanised asbestos fibre replaces the more expensive aluminium disc. The stamping regulations were the same as those of AO 102 of May 1907. Aluminium discs also continue to be used until stocks run out.

September 1916
Army Order 287 introduces the two disc I referred to at the top of this article. The reason for the introduction was to counteract the problem of identifying men after they had been killed. Although many men (including Vera Brittain's officer fiancĂ© Roland Leighton) purchased their own identity bracelets, these were unofficial.  The green disc (referred to as No 1 disc) was to be threaded on a long cord around the neck with the red/brown disc (No 2 disc) threaded on a shorter cord from disc number 1.

The Western Front Association has chapter and verse (and scans of the Army Orders) on its site. Image courtesy of Orkney Image Library.

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