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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Remembered Today:

Identity Discs


phil andrade

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At the GWF conference in Birmingham, Taff Gillingham gave a wonderful talk about infantry equipment.

One aspect in particular intrigued me : the way in which the material used for identity discs changed in the course of the war.

Apparently, this impinged on the numbers of dead who could be identified, and the huge numbers of unknown British dead from the Somme were, to a degree, attributable to the fact that the discs had not survived intact. A more durable material allowed for better identification procedure, and this accounts for the somewhat lower proprtion of unidentified dead in later battles.

I had not realised this, and always assumed that the conditions of the battlefield and the intensity of the fighting had made recovery, let alone identification, difficult or impossible.

Please, could some of the pals inform me what these changes in the material used actually were, and when were they implemented ?

Phil (PJA)

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Phil,

I have in my possession my g/fathers two sets of I/d disks, one showing his original SR number and the later obviously issued after the number change in 1916. Whilst they would withstand a bite

test, they appear to be of exactly the same shape (one round and the other 8 sided) and made of the same material.

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.

One aspect in particular intrigued me : the way in which the material used for identity discs changed in the course of the war.

Apparently, this impinged on the numbers of dead who could be identified, and the huge numbers of unknown British dead from the Somme were, to a degree, attributable to the fact that the discs had not survived intact. A more durable material allowed for better identification procedure, and this accounts for the somewhat lower proprtion of unidentified dead in later battles.

.

Presumably, we're talking about British identity discs here? :huh:

The changes in material had nothing to do with it whatsoever (vulcanised asbestos fibre discs being introduced in August 1914... way before the Somme battle)... the material change was introduced solely because of supply & demand (and cost)).

What the Somme battle speeded up (not changed) was the implementation of the issue of a secondary disc as from September 1916 (following on from the findings of an investigation by the Directorate of the Commission of Graves Registration and Enquiries that took place in May 1916 - mainly looking into what effects the issue of a secondary disc in the French Army had (they had them on issue as from May 1915). Its actually this official issue of the second disc (and the corresponding update in instructions regarding post-mortem procedures) that made the difference later.

Dave

PS. the only army that introduced a change in the material of identity discs solely because of corrosion/damage to the original issues was the French (and that was far from universal)

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That article contains a number of errors and omissions that need correcting, David.

For a more accurate (text only) version, try HERE

Dave

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Thanks for these replies, folks.

I look forward to reflection and discussion.

Sorry, Dave...I should have stipulated that I allude to British discs here.

Phil (PJA)

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PS. the only army that introduced a change in the material of identity discs solely because of corrosion/damage to the original issues was the French (and that was far from universal)

...though the USN discs introduced in 1917 were made of Monel because of its known anti-corrosion properties.

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I look forward to reflection and discussion.

To be honest ,Phil, I don't see what there is to discuss as such here...

Its an irrefutable fact that vulcanised asbestos fibre discs were implemented when the 'British war' was only 17 days old. This was when the 'material' of discs changed ... a long time before it was known how the material of manufacture would affect (or otherwise) the identification of corpses. The issue of a single identity disc (which was to be removed upon death) is where the problem lay, not what it was made from (even when a supplementary private purchase tag was also worn, this , being a 'personal item', was quite often also removed, leaving no identification on the body). The problem was only resolved (as much as possible) when the second disc - intended to be left on the corpse - was issued.

Now, that said, there might have been a slight change in the manufacturing process during the war (possibly in the vulcanization process...is that possible?) - it's certainly possible to observe slight differences between pre and post 1920 manufactured discs - but, if it was anything to do with identification purposes, then I'd be very surprised (and be very interested to see any documentary evidence stating such!). Whatever the case might be though... following (and along with) aluminium, vulcanised asbestos fibre is what discs were made of in late 1914. Vulcanised asbestos fibre is what they were made of in 1918 too (and 1920, and 1930, and 1940 and 1950, etc).

Dave

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The contention made by Taff Gillingham - if i remember correcty - was that the practice of issuing two discs allowed for a higher incidence of known burials, and that the rather diminished ratio of the dead after 1916 who had to be commemorated rather than identified is attributable to this. I was wondering how far this might be challenged by considering how many of the missing from the Somme were not buried as "unknowns", but simply lost altogether. Here we have to focus on the difference between the unidentified and the lost bodies. If it was a question of identification, then the two disc system was bound to have a significant impact on the proportion of known burials, but if it was a matter of battlefield conditions in static and intense warfare, or of abandonment in retreat, then the process of recovery itself, rather than identification, is what determines the numbers.

Phil (PJA)

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The contention made by Taff Gillingham - if i remember correcty - was that the practice of issuing two discs allowed for a higher incidence of known burials, and that the rather diminished ratio of the dead after 1916 who had to be commemorated rather than identified is attributable to this. I was wondering how far this might be challenged by considering how many of the missing from the Somme were not buried as "unknowns", but simply lost altogether. Here we have to focus on the difference between the unidentified and the lost bodies. If it was a question of identification, then the two disc system was bound to have a significant impact on the proportion of known burials, but if it was a matter of battlefield conditions in static and intense warfare, or of abandonment in retreat, then the process of recovery itself, rather than identification, is what determines the numbers.

Phil (PJA)

You've lost me now Phil! - Basically then, Taff said practically the same as me after all!

The effects of the issue of two tags was known well before the British issued them - the study of the effects of these during 12 months hard fighting in the French Army proved this idea to be a 'goer' nearly 6 months before the Brits followed suite. However, if we're talking about completely 'lost' bodies, then, yes , of course battle conditions would have an effect... a lost body could be wearing 6 identity discs and still not be found, so, in reality, we're not really talking about identity discs (and especially not the material they were made from) at all then?

Dave

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Forgive my meandering along on this one, Dave. I had forgoten that it was not the material, simply the issuing of two discs that made the difference.

This was a revelation to me : I had never connected the question of the incidence of unidentified dead with the importance of the two disc system. I just had not known about it.

What does bother me slightly is the implication that this system was the reason for the higher incidence of identified burials affter 1916. I thought that this was to underestimate the importance of the fact that, in some battles, for a number of reasons, it was failure to recover that accounted for the great numbers of missing.

I would be interested to find out whether the British dead in the Somme fighting of 1916 were more likely to have been lost entirely than those who fell in the Passchendaele battles a year later. Conditions were surely as bad in Flanders as they had been in Picardy, and I would have thought that the proportion of lost bodies in the autumn of 1917 was every bit as high as it had been on the Somme.

Taff Gillingham's assertion that the duality of IDs had changed the proportion came as a surprise , and I was wondering whether the registers of the CWGC bear him out.

Phil (PJA)

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What does bother me slightly is the implication that this system was the reason for the higher incidence of identified burials affter 1916. I thought that this was to underestimate the importance of the fact that, in some battles, for a number of reasons, it was failure to recover that accounted for the great numbers of missing.

Speaking purely figuratively here...

Lets take a random 20 deaths at, for example, Loos 1915. Out of these 20, 15 bodies were discovered later (all of whom were treated as per post-mortem regulations). Lets say 5 out of these 15 were identifiable through some method or other. That would make 5 completely missing, 5 identified killed and 10 discovered but still missing..... 20 deaths with 15 graves (5 of which are named) and 15 still recorded as 'missing'.

Fast forward the same 20, but deaths having occured at, say, Arras 1917. We'll have the same 5 as completely missing, but , due to the new 'system' and post-mortem regulations, we'd be likely to have a reversal in the 'identified and unidentified' figure... 10 identified and 5 unidentified... giving, again, 20 deaths with 15 graves. This time, however, we'd have 10 named graves and just 10 still recorded as 'missing' (5 of whom have graves).

i'd say, therefore. that both Taff and yourself are correct... the new system did make it more likely that a body would be identified if found, but conditions in certain battles were such that a body might not have been found anyway (and, don't forget that, even prior to the introduction of the 2 disc system an undiscovered body would still have the same identification on it that a post-introduction body would have... the only real difference being that, if a 1914/15/16 body had been accorded the 'regulations' and then lost, it was unlikely to have any form of specific ID on it, whereas a 1917/18 body would (should!) have)

Bet that's made it as clear as mud!!!!

Dave

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Thanks, Dave. There was an uncomfortable sensation in my mind that you had found my theme somewhat preposterous, and I'm grateful to you for taking time to clarify.

Taff Gillingham might have suggested that the two disc system is the principal reason for the much larger number of missing on the Thiepval Memorial than that on its Tyne Cot counterpart. Here I rely on my memory, and might be doing him an injustice. I felt that this was challengeable - mainly because the Passchendaele fighting that the Tyne Cot memorial commemorates did not last so long as the Somme battles covered at Thiepval. The absolute number of British dead was somewhat larger in the 1916 battle, but , in proportionate terms, the number of unrecovered dead from the autumn of 1917 was perhaps higher. The Passchendaele salient was abandoned to the enemy in the spring of 1918, and Ludendorff recoiled from the spectacle of many thousands of unburied British dead who had been left to rot there for months.

Phil (PJA)

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