When Were Dog Tags First Used in the Military?

Stock Image. British and German WWII ID Discs

These were metal discs on a bracelet which held the name of the soldier, their rank, and their formation.

Dog tags and the military are linked in everyone’s mind. Military personnel carry them as identification and a reminder of what can be lost in the call of duty. While dog tags are a staple of the modern military, they were not always in the shape that we are used to.

The use of dog tags by a military force can be dated back to ancient Rome. Roman legionnaires were provided with a signaculum when they enrolled. This was a lead disc which was inscribed with the name of the legionnaire and which legion they were a part of.

An example of dog tags as issued by the Australian Defence ForceDate 14 May 2017
An example of dog tags as issued by the Australian Defence Force
Date 14 May 2017

The disc was placed in a small leather pouch that each soldier wore around his neck. Each signaculum had a seal stamped into it to authenticate them. The Spartan army also used dog tags, but these were made of wood and worn around the wrist.

In terms of modern warfare, dog tags can be dated back to the American Civil War. During the war, there was no official way to identify all of the fallen. By the end of the war, more than 40% of all fallen soldiers would remain unidentified and interred as unknown.

These identity discs belonged to Driver George Aaron Ransom of the 2nd Howitzer Battery, Canadian Field Artillery. He was killed during the Battle of Passchendaele on 6 November 1917 at the age of 24. He is buried at Brandhoek Cemetery, Belgium.
These identity discs belonged to Driver George Aaron Ransom of the 2nd Howitzer Battery, Canadian Field Artillery. He was killed during the Battle of Passchendaele on 6 November 1917 at the age of 24. He is buried at Brandhoek Cemetery, Belgium.

In May 1862, Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, received a letter from John Kennedy of New York. In the letter, Kennedy suggested that all Union soldiers be provided with an identification tag to help identify the fallen and alert their families. This request was denied, and soldiers had to turn to homemade methods of identification.

German ID Disc
German ID Disc

Soldiers started to write their name, unit, and hometown on pieces of paper they attached to their uniform. They would also use cloth ribbon or etch the information into the soft metal of their belt buckles. There are some accounts of soldiers taking the time to carve wooden discs which were tied to string and worn around the neck.

As the war continued, retailers and manufacturers noticed the need for these identification tags. Periodical publications such as Harper’s Weekly started to run adverts for Soldier Pins. These pins did not always carry the names of the soldiers wearing them.

US Dog Tags
US Dog Tags

A famous example is that of Sergeant Amos Humiston of the 154th New York Infantry. He was killed in the Battle of Gettysburg and found holding a disc with an ambrotype of three children. When this was run by several newspapers, the disc was able to identify the fallen soldier.

After the Civil War, proposals for standard identification tags became more common. In 1899, the Quartermaster of Identification in the Philippines, Chaplin Charles C. Pierce, proposed that identification tags be part of the standard field pack for combat personnel.

Badge, identity (AM 2001.25.435-5)
Badge, identity (AM 2001.25.435-5)

From the end of the war to 1906, the US government considered a range of identification systems. During these years, soldiers continued to make their own tags.

In 1906, the government was presented with a circular aluminum disc which held information about the soldier wearing it. This design was chosen for the first identification tags to be used by the US military. However, it would be seven years before the tags were made mandatory.

Identity disc, WW1 Belonged to Lt. Col. PC Fenwick, NZ Medical Corps, 1NZEF id disc; circular zing disc; marked- “N.Z. MIL. FORCES – LT COL PC FENWICK – C. OF. E.- HOS REGT. – 3-758; strand of narrow guage wire threaded through pierced hole at top attached to two pierved coins, an Edward VII half penny and a Victoria shilling (very worn); contained inside a suede leather coin purse Date 14 Aug 1990; 1914-1919;
Identity disc, WW1 Belonged to Lt. Col. PC Fenwick, NZ Medical Corps, 1NZEF id disc; circular zing disc; marked- “N.Z. MIL. FORCES – LT COL PC FENWICK – C. OF. E.- HOS REGT. – 3-758; strand of narrow guage wire threaded through pierced hole at top attached to two pierved coins, an Edward VII half penny and a Victoria shilling (very worn); contained inside a suede leather coin purse Date 14 Aug 1990; 1914-1919;

These circular tags continued to be used into the First World War. American soldiers were not the only ones with these tags as the French soldiers wore a plaque d’identité. These were metal discs on a bracelet which held the name of the soldier, their rank, and their formation.

When the United States entered the war, soldiers were provided with two circular tags. One of the tags would stay with the body and the second would be used to mark graves in battle zones. The circular tags of WWI would be replaced with rectangular tags similar to what we know today.

Francis Edgar Ulmer’s World War I-era round aluminum dog tag.NPS Photo
Francis Edgar Ulmer’s World War I-era round aluminum dog tag.
NPS Photo

During the Second World War, military personnel were provided with a rectangular identification tag that had a notch in the bottom edge. The notch was to help manufacturers align them when identification data was embossed. The amount of information on these tags had expanded from earlier ones and now include blood type, religion, and tetanus shot information.

The notch in the tags was later eliminated through the use of new embossing machines. The two tags were also placed on different chain lengths. During the Vietnam War, American dog tags had a rubber cover over them to silence the distinct noise they made when soldiers moved.

Chester A. Dolan Jr.’s US dog tag from World War II
Chester A. Dolan Jr.’s US dog tag from World War II

American style dog tags are now used across the globe. While they are officially called identification tags, dog tags are the name that most people know them by.

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This name is believed to date back to either the Prussian Army in 1870 or President Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson created the first dog licensing law which required identification tags for dogs which were similar to the original military dog tags. The Prussian Army had identification tags called “hundemarken” which literally translates to dog tag.