Military Identification: Death, Burial and Identification in the Landscape of Industrial War, 1914-1918

The identity disc or “dog tag” has become an iconic symbol of identity in modern warfare. The first officially issued identity disc was introduced by the German Armies of Prussia in 1870, and was swiftly adapted by armed forces across the world. By the outbreak of World War One, the majority of combatant forces had adapted identification systems based around identity discs. As the war raged on, and the number of fatalities increased, systems began to adapt. The British forces introduced a second identity disc, designed to be removed from the body upon death, leaving the original red disc upon the body to allow for identification. The German Army continued to modify their discs throughout the war.

An understanding of the procedures in place for identification, burial and administration of the deceased during periods of industrial war is essential not only for those working on historical war graves, but in order to inform and influence current methods of identification used within armed forces.

Memoirs and letters allow us an insight into how men experienced life surrounded by death. Examples of privately purchased objects for the purpose of identification can be found amongst almost all forces, with bracelets proving particularly popular, even becoming embedded into pop culture on the home front during WWII. Photographer Nina Leen produced a series for LIFE Magazine, ‘Teen-Age Girls: They Live a Wonderful Life of Their Own’ in 1944, in which the girls arms are adorned with stacks of identity bracelets. But what did the ‘identity disc’ mean to the soldiers who used them? World War One saw unprecedented levels of mass conscription across the globe, creating an unusual mix of social classes, along with a wide range of religious beliefs. How did these social identities influence group identity within the military?

Despite the formation of military cemeteries, mass burials were still common. It wasn’t always possible to relocate temporary graves, and the landscape was constantly changing. Incidents such as the swapping of identity discs between German soldiers resulted in misidentification of the deceased. Few military orders or training manuals instruct soldiers on how to ensure they themselves are identifiable. This may have led to doubts about the purpose of identity discs.

The idea of individual burial for soldiers emerges as a result of World War One. Prior to this, European armies tended to be small trained forces, with men specifically recruited for purpose, without mass conscription. As the Great War progressed, many English people expressed concerns over the lack of identifiable graves for their loved ones, the effects of the Victorian preoccupation with death still visible in burial cultures of the time. Previously, due to the nature and size of the British army, an individual burial would not have been expected for a soldier. So we see a cultural shift in the burial traditions of the British and Commonwealth forces.

Issues such as the number of war dead left unidentified, clearing of the battlefields and reinternment of remains from temporary battlefield graves to a final resting place were of great concern internationally. 1914 saw the development of the Joint War Committee, formed by the British Red Cross along with the Order of St John, whilst Germany introduced the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge in 1919. The works and records of organizations such as these can help us to understand the processes employed by large armed forces, and also understand their short fallings and the problems that archaeologists now face in the field as a result.

Two unidentified Australian soldiers at the ‘Maze’ searching the ground for personal identity discs and pay books of men killed in the early advance of 5 November 1916.
Australian War Memorial Museum Photo Archives, ID number E00251

This project will seek to write the history of the administration of the war dead for the British, Commonwealth and German forces, covering soldier education, record keeping, identification and burial of the War Dead and subsequent reburial from temporary graves. It will seek to understand how soldier’s experienced life in a landscape of death, addressing their personal expectations about identification, attitudes to death & burial at the time, and unofficial uses for identity discs. This knowledge can be used by archaeologists working on battlefield graves today.

X-radiography will be employed to further examine the material composition of specific identity discs, which will allow for better understanding of how the materials might decompose within a burial context, influencing current excavation techniques.


After completing a BA(hons) in History in Egyptology at the University of Liverpool in 2012, I decided on a change of field and began an MSc in Forensic Archaeology & Crime Scene Investigation at the University of Bradford. My previous historical studies had focused on religion, death and social reform. FACSI gave me the opportunity to learn about anthropology, taphonomy, excavation of human remains, law and crime scene investigation. Here I began to combine my knowledge and started to research the administration and identification of the war dead, with a focus on identity discs. This led me to work with, writing their ‘World War Wednesday’ web-feature between 2014-15.

Twitter: Conflict_arch

Sarah is under the supervision of Mr Rob Janaway & Dr Andy Wilson at the University of Bradford, and Dr Rebecca Gill at the University of Huddersfield