Dog tags or identification tags are worn by military personnel to identify casualties, with the necessary information engraved on those tags. Their journey had come quite a long way.

First Attempts

The use of identification tags came a long way and can be traced back to Spartans who used to write their names on sticks tied to their left wrists. A lead dog tag called “Signaculum” was given to Roman soldiers at the time of their enrolment. It was a disk tied with a leather string and worn around the neck. Their name and legion were written on these tags.

In China during the mid-19 century, Taiping rebels wore uniforms with wooden dog tags at the belt with their name, age, birthplace, unit, and date of enlistment written.

American Civil War

During the American Civil War, General Meade’s troops were said to write their names and address on paper notes and then place it on the back of their coats. Others scratched their details in the backing of their belts. Whatever the method was, it was only taken on each soldier’s initiative. They all did that because of fear of being listed among the pile of the unidentified soldiers with their graves marked with nothing but “unknown.”

Cpt. Marian Lozinski dog tag, issued by the Royal Air Force. LubiczCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1899, Chaplain Charles C. Pierce recommended the inclusion of an “identity disc” in the troops’ combat field kit after he was tasked to establish the Quartermaster Office of Identification in the Philippines. So in 1913, identification tags became mandatory, and by 1917, all soldiers wore these aluminum discs on chains around their necks. A year prior, the British Army started providing their soldiers with two official tags made of vulcanized asbestos fiber that was said to be more comfortable to wear in hot climates.

Calling it “Dog Tag”

The official name for these tags is “identification tag,” so where did the “dog tag” name come from?

Dog tags of Ernest J. Massard, Jr., who served at Base Hospital 21 during World War I.

During the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, the Prussian army began issuing identification tags to its troops and nicknamed them “Hundemarken.” It was the German equivalent of “dog tag” and similar to the identification tags the dogs in Berlin used to wear on their collars as a mark that their owner paid the dog license fee.

Dog tags from Vienna, Austria.

Details Included

The details included in the dog tags changed through time. During WWII, these tags were stamped with name, rank, service number, blood type, religion, and emergency notification name and address. Later on, the emergency contact and address were removed. Also, dog tags had a “T” mark for those soldiers who had the tetanus vaccination, but it was also omitted. There was also a time during WWI when each sailor’s right index finger was etched on the Navy tags to prevent fraud or misuse. The soldier’s Social Security number used to be part of the more recent dog tags, too. However, they removed it in 2015 to safeguard against identity theft.