Servicemen of all hues have long carried identification tags into battle. Frequently, when soldiers are killed the tags of fibreboard or tin are all that is left to identify the bodies of their owners. But just as frequently, even the tags themselves are missing or destroyed, making the task of identifying the casualty that much harder.
Perhaps in anticipation of this – but probably more likely as a good luck charm – it has not been unknown for servicemen to wear their own, private ‘identity’ tags. And not uncommonly, it has indeed been these unofficial trinkets which proved crucial in identifying a dead soldier.
Such was the case when WWI infantryman Private Richard John Moffat, service number 2698, from Carlton in Melbourne, was killed in France in August 1918. On exhumation of the battlefield grave some years later, Moffat’s official identity tags were missing – but on the body was a small piece of curved brass, crudely cut into the shape of Australia and engraved with his name. He was identified on the basis of this piece of personal property.
His file at the National Archives of Australia notes personal effects connected with Moffat. All it says is “DISC”. Usually personal effects like these would be returned to the family. But, as related by reporter Bridie Smith in an article published in October last year in The Age newspaper, instead of being forwarded on to Moffat’s grieving mother, for unknown reasons the disc was included in his official service record. It was still in the folder when, in 1993, the Army transferred its records to the National Archives. And it was still there when Moffat’s niece, Deirdre Meredith, opened the folder in the reading room at the National Archives in 2001. “It was a heart-stopping moment because it was such a personal thing,” Mrs Meredith is quoted as saying.
But when the file was returned to the Archive’s storage, the identity disc had to go back too. And so started a two-and-a-half year battle to get it back to the family.
The National Archives held the view that the little piece of brass was part of a Commonwealth record, and thus needed to remain under its jurisdiction. But for the Merediths, it was clearly a family heirloom – it had been part of Private Moffat’s personal possessions. Letters were written to the National Archives, Commonwealth Ombudsman, Government Ministers and Members of Parliament. And she wrote to the Australian Army. Expert advice from historians and legal advisors eventually persuaded the Army that the brass plate was, in fact, the property of Private Moffat’s next-of-kin. And so, in September last year, an Army officer flew to Melbourne from Canberra, and returned the little brass identity plate to its rightful owners.
“It was like him coming home”, Mrs Meredith said.
This story caught my eye because I can remember similar feelings to those experienced by Mrs Meredith when the plate fell out of the file from one of my first visits to the National Archives a few years ago. The file I was looking at was Jack Purcell’s A705 Casualty File. About halfway into the stack of papers, I found a letter from January 1945 signed ‘EF Purcell’.
That would be Edward Francis Purcell. One of Jack’s brothers.
And my great grandfather.
It’s a very official letter, dealing with important issues like wills and deferred pay. But the signature pulled me up for a moment. It suddenly reminded me that it was written by someone with whom I share a name, and to some extent a family identity.
There are other letters from Edward Purcell. All are typed, as is the letter in the NAA file. All are signed with the same almost copperplate hand. And all are written in beautiful, almost painfully polite language. As far as I know just four other letters exist – all in Mollie Smith’s collection – and so because they are so rare I must confess to feeling a little disappointed that I had to give the NAA one back when I returned the file after looking at it.
Of course, this is a different scenario to the brass identity plate in Richard Moffat’s service record. Edward’s letter was an official one, written to the Air Force, and so it legitimately forms part of a Commonwealth record. Thus it quite properly stays in the National Archives, ready for anyone else who is interested to read it.
© 2015 Adam Purcell
 NAA: B2455, MOFFAT RICHARD JOHN. The digital copy of this record still contains a scan of the disc.
 NAA: A705, 166/33/163 PURCHELL, Royston William – (Warrant Officer); Service Number – 412686; File type – Casualty – Repatriation; Aircraft – Lancaster LM475; Place – Lille, France; Date – 10 May 1944 [Note mis-spelling of PURCELL]