The movie 1917, based on the First World War, tells the story of two young British soldiers, Lance Corporals William Schofield and Tom Blake who are ordered by General Erinmore to carry a message to Colonel Mackenzie of the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, calling off a scheduled attack that would jeopardise the lives of 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother Lieutenant Joseph Blake.
Schofield and Blake cross no man’s land to reach an abandoned farmhouse, where they witness a German plane being shot down. They drag the burned pilot from the plane. However, the pilot stabs Blake and Schofield shoots the German pilot dead. Schofield promises Blake as he dies that he would complete the mission and to write to Blake’s mother. He removes two rings from Blake’s fingers along with the round Identity Disc worn around his neck.
Schofield succeeds in reaching Colonel Mackenzie, who reads the message and reluctantly calls off the attack. He is told that Lieutenant Joseph was in the first wave, and after searching for him among the wounded, finds him unscathed. Lieutenant Joseph is upset to hear about his brother’s death, but thanks Schofield for his efforts. Schofield gives Joseph his brother’s rings and Identity Disc and requests him to write to their mother about Blake’s heroics.
As I watched it, I made a mental note to write a post on the identity discs worn by the soldiers. On a philosophical note it reminds every man in uniform that martyrdom is just around the corner. However, at the practical level, it has a specific purpose. They bear the personal number, name, regiment, religion and blood group of the soldier and serve the twin purpose as both a recorded evidence of a soldier’s death in action as well as for the eventual recognition of the body, in case there is a need. When there are a large number of fatal casualties over a short duration, it serves a purpose of keeping a record of death. It must be sounding a bit eerie to the uninitiated.
In the Indian Army we had to wear these Identity Discs while on operations and during various training exercises. Actually there are two discs – an oval disc with holes punched on either ends and a round one with a single hole. Our soldiers wore the oval disc on their left wrist and the round one around their neck. On inquiry they said that it is to ensure that one disc will remain with the body even if the hand shears off. The logic did not appeal to me at all, but I could not find any instructions regarding the proper way of wearing the discs. Surely we were not fighting a battle with swords to have either our heads or hands to shear off.
I had no difficulty wearing the round disc around my neck, but the oval disc around my wrist was always a worry. I lost them during most training exercises and had to get a new one made every time. Obviously there was something amiss – I thought.
In 1988, I had to appear for a promotion examination in which ‘Military Administration’ was a subject. Disposal of the mortal remains of a martyred soldier was an issue on which I often had many questions. Our Battery Commander was Major VN Singh, a 1971 Indo-Pak War veteran. He was well known for his knowledge and meticulous military administration skills and had just been posted to our Regiment after a stint as an administration and logistics staff officer of an infantry brigade. I approached him and he clarified the mystery and explained to me the procedure and the proper way of wearing Identity Discs.
The oval disc, through one hole a cord 24 inches long is passed through and the chain is worn around the neck. Using a small cord of about four inches, the round disc is attached to the bottom hole of the oval disc. In case of death in war, the round disc is removed to identify the dead and the oval disc is left on the body for identifying it whenever the body is recovered. The round disc along with the soldier’s personal belongings is despatched to the Depot Regiment of the Regimental Centre of the soldier and the oval disc is removed at the time of cremation/ burial or despatch of the dead body to the soldier’s home and kept for records.
Identity Discs of Indian Army owe its origin to the British Army. The first British ‘Disc Identity’ was introduced in 1907. It was a single identity disc, fitted with a cord to be worn around the neck underneath the clothing. The single-disc led to many postmortem problems in identification of the dead in that the disc was being removed for administrative purposes, leaving the body devoid of identification.
In May 1916 the second disc was introduced – octagonal in shape – known as “Disc, Identity, No.1, Green”, with the original 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 Disc was intended to remain on the body whereas No.2 Disc was to be removed for administration.
In the movie 1917, Lance Corporal Schofield is shown removing the Red Disc, leaving the Green Disc on Lance Corporal Blake’s body.
Canadian soldiers’ Identity Disc is scored by a horizontal groove so that the lower portion may be detached. If the wearer becomes a fatal casualty, the lower portion of the disc shall be detached and returned to the Headquarters with the soldier’s personal documents. The chain and upper section of the disc shall not be removed from the body.
“Soldiers can sometimes make decisions that are smarter than the orders they’ve been given.” ― Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game