As I watched the movie 1917, I made a mental note to write a post on the identity discs worn by the soldiers. In Canada and USA, some military spouses and fiances wear their partner’s Identity Discs as a symbol of love towards their partner, deployed in a far away land. Some Veterans post retirement continue to wear their Discs.
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 on the war-front, calling off a scheduled attack that could 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 meets Lieutenant Joseph who 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.
On a philosophical note the Discs remind every soldier 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.
These discs hanging close to the soldiers’ chests, remind them as to who they are. It gives the soldier facing death, ready to make the ultimate sacrifice, the confidence that He will not be forgotten. Some spouses of US soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq wore their soldier-spouse’s disc as a a reminder of their true love and commitment.
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 soldier killed in action 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 six 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. During World War II, British Army soldiers were issued with aluminum Identity Discs – oval and round.
US Army Identity Discs consist of two discs. One disc is on a 24 inch chain and the other is attached to the main chain by a four inch chain.
There is an interesting history to the US Army Discs. During WWII the discs were rectangular shaped with round ends and a notch at one end with name and details stamped by a machine. It was rumoured that the notch was put on the disc so that the disc could be placed in a dead soldier’s mouth and would hold it open so that the gasses would escape and prevent the body from bloating. In reality, the stamping machine required a notch to hold the blank disc in place while it was stamped. During the Vietnam War, new stamping machines were used and the notch was eliminated. Soldiers realised that the clinging of the metal discs gave away their location. Hence rubber covers were provided to keep the discs silent.
During the Vietnam War, some American soldiers tied one disc to their bootlaces. They believed that it could facilitate identification in case their body was dismembered.
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.
Identity Discs may become more symbolic in future as technology advances in the days of DNA sampling to identify deceased soldiers.
“Soldiers can sometimes make decisions that are smarter than the orders they’ve been given.” ― Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game