Home Land War Weapons, Equipment and Uniforms Body Armour For The Western Front In The Great War

Body Armour For The Western Front In The Great War

Introduction

Soon after the British Expeditionary Force arrived on the Western Front in August 1914, and got involved with trench warfare, anxious relatives began to despatch a constant flow of parcels with 'comforts' to make life in the trenches a little easier. Sensing the need for all kinds of personal equipment, inventors and entrepreneurs rushed to fill real and speculative needs for trench-aids. Amongst these were various forms of body armour and over the course of the war, 18 different commercial designs were offered to the general public. Unfortunately, as there was no equivalent of the 'Which Magazine' at the time we are unable to know their comparative efficacy. Since, at least, initially, there was no provision for body armour of any kind in the British soldier's simple 'game-keeper type' uniform and equipment, the need was certainly there. Just how vulnerable the British Tommy felt against bullets and shrapnel can be appreciated by various anecdotes. One has a Tommy surreptitiously removing his trenching tool from its holder on his hip before 'going over the top' and slipping the blade beneath his webbing to afford some protection for his manhood from bullets, shrapnel and shell splinters.

No doubt, in traditional military fashion, some martinet commanders forbade any unofficial personal trench-aids for one reason or another. In any event, there is little mention of such personal body armour in the literature, although in the wartime newspaper archives there were many advertisements by manufacturers and their agents for these personal war-goods. One well-advertised product in 1917 was the Birmingham Chemico Body Shield based on body armour of kapok and phenolic resin. It cost about ?5.00; well beyond the average Tommy's pocket. Indeed, as one advertisement hinted 'only the wealthy should apply'. Another product was a standard military uniform jacket lined with small metal plates. Its efficacy is unknown, but in view of the probable high ballistic energy of most of the bullets, shrapnel and steel splinters striking the small plates, the protection of the wearer from serious injury was likely to be minimal.

Of course, for many years some artillery pieces and heavy machine guns had steel plate shields attached to deflect bullets and shrapnel. And over the duration of the war various bullet- and steel fragment-proof trench shields were produced for specialists such as machine-gunners, snipers and observers, but these were not strictly personal aids.

Official personal body armour

In 1915 and 1916, serious thought was given by the British Army Design Committee to the provision of personal body armour for the trenches. In particular an evaluation was made for a 'Body Shield for Bombers'.

A wide review was also made by the Experimental Ordnance Board (EOB) of the available material that could be used to make bullet- or steel fragment-proof armour. This included pads of silk or rubber, as well as formed steel plate. A 'necklet' which protected the neck and shoulders for soldiers in the trenches appeared to show promise. It was made from 1-inch thick layers of silk and cotton impregnated and stiffened by a resin and worked on the same shock absorbing effect as the modern 'Kevlar-16' body armour a.k.a. 'textile armour'. It was found to stop a 230-grain pistol bullet with a ballistic strength of 600 feet/second. Several hundred of these devices were issued for experimental purposes. Unfortunately, it was expensive to make and the necklet deteriorated quite quickly under trench conditions.

Another design consisted of a fabric corselet with metallic back and front plates plus a groin protector. This was issued in some numbers on the Western Front in 1917/18.

When the British tank was introduced in July 1916, it was soon discovered that tank crews were subject to injury from metal 'splashes' and splinters of paint from the interior surface of the tank's armour plate when it was struck by shells, bullets, shrapnel and steel splinters. The crew would frequently leave the tanks streaming with blood from these multiple minor, and not so minor, injuries. The eyes of the tank crew were particularly vulnerable. Special eye protectors - splinter-goggles - were provided along with combination chain mail and leather facemasks.

The British army medical services' evaluation of the efficacy of personal body armour, based on 1916 Front-Line casualty statistics on the Western Front, indicated that three quarters of all battle injuries could have been avoided if an effective full body armour had been universally worn. Between 60% and 80% of the wounds were produced by missiles of low, or medium, velocity, and were of the penetrating type rather perforation i.e. metal fragmentation splinters rather than bullets.

After various trails were completed, the British decided that the cost considerations, and the other operational problems, outweighed the advantages and body armour was never officially introduced on a wide scale by the British.

The French, in particular, experimented with steel and chain-mail visors attached to the Adrian steel helmet (see below) but the visors interfered with the use of the rifle and were not popular. French trials with body armour were more extensive and a large number of 'abdominal armour' and 'shoulder and leg pieces sets', designed by the ubiquitous, General Adrian (see below) were supplied to the Front Line in 1916. Mainly because of mobility problems, none proved to be really practical in combat, and production of most of them was discontinued by 1917. From the outset of the war, the French cavalry wore polished ceremonial steel helmets and breastplates and continued to wear them for an unjustifiable length of time after their utility was clearly shown to be in dubious in an increasingly mechanised war.

The Belgians experimented with the Ansaldo Italian body armour that came as chest, back and shoulder plates. It was claimed to resist rifle bullets at 100 metres.

As may be expected, the Germans were really serious about body armour and, starting in 1916, had a large production run of an articulated body armour made of nickel/silicon armour, which in format was much like that used by the Roman Legions - the so-called 'Lobster armour'. A few examples were provided to each Sector as trench stores, but like other designs, it proved to be too heavy and cumbersome in the stormtrooper type operations; but static machine gunners used them widely. Many photos of this three-piece articulated body armour exist, and from these it can be readily seen how webbing straps provided the means of articulation and the extent which the armour protected the soldier from neck to groin. An improved 1917 version of this armour, called the Infantrie-Panzer, and weighing about 20-pounds, was provided to the German stormtroopers involved in the March 1918 Offensive on the Western Front. It is said that half a million sets were issued.

The head protectors

Whilst the trench itself usually provided a good deal of protection for the torso and legs of the soldier against projectiles, the head of the occupant remained very vulnerable indeed. In the early months of the War there were constant head-wound casualties - many fatal. These wounds were caused particularly by snipers, shrapnel shells bursting in the air, falling debris from explosions, and flying fragments of all sorts. Brick built structures were notorious for the hazardous fragments they produced. In one German document it was commented how shell fragments only the size of a pea had caused serious irreversible brain damage. A similar size fragment striking the torso or limbs would rarely cause such a serious injury Accordingly, all of the belligerents paid special attention to this aspect of protective armour.

The French were first to respond on a large scale when, in 1914, Intendant (Commissariat) General August Louis Adrian was told by a French soldier that he had escaped death from a serious bullet wound to the head by wearing his steel food bowl under his kepi (uniform cap). In 1915, 700,000 steel skullcaps - casque Adrian or calottes - were supplied to the troops in the trenches. The tightly fitting rounded bowl-like casque Adrian was in the shape of the skullcaps (calottes) then worn by French priests. Like Adrian's anecdotal soldier mentioned earlier, the Adrian casque was also worn by the French soldier under his kepi.

The British quickly ordered 1,000 of them, but never used them on a wide scale.

The Germans soon followed suit with a leather cap, to which was fastened a steel nose bar.

Meanwhile, all the combattant nations were looking for a more protective form of head cover with rather different objectives:

  • The British were particularly concerned about protection from shrapnel.
  • The Germans from low velocity fragments of all kinds.

The French wanted a head-protector that was effective but also smart and in tune with the French military philosophy of élan; one that the poilus (bearded-ones = infantry) would readily be persuaded to wear.

The French Steel Helmets:

The first full steel helmet appeared in the trenches of the Summer of 1915: it was the French 'Adrian' helmet. At first sight it was rather dashing in the style of a peaked French fireman's helmet that in turn was based on the 17th Century 'pot helmet'. It was made of light mild steel in four shaped components - the peak, neck, bowl and comb - which were joined together. The liner came in three sizes that meant a good fit was usually possible. The helmet was easy to mass-produce but the mediocre quality of the mild steel used meant it was far from bullet- or fragment-proof. Nevertheless, its ready mass-production meant that three million French soldiers had one by Christmas 1915 whilst the British still sported their cloth 'Gor Blimey caps', and the Germans their thin leather metal spiked helmets. However, the British did buy a batch of the Adrian helmets for field trials.

Colonel Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill and some other British officers on the Western Front, were early and firm fans of the Adrian helmet and purchased them privately. Churchill was seen to be wearing a rather ornate one in many newspaper photographs, and in an oil painting portrait, during the period that he served on the Western Front, from November 1915 to May 1916.

The French Adrian was rather unusual in that it had a moulded service badge on the front and a slim leather chinstrap that could also be attached above the peak around the front of the helmet. Also, it had a covered ventilation aperture on the crown under the 'comb'. It weighed around 1.7-pounds.The colour of the French helmet varied somewhat. It started off in 1915 as grey-blue and became dull-blue in the Autumn of 1916. Those supplied to French Colonial troops had a khaki coloured paint job throughout the War.

The British Steel Helmet:

In August 1915, a British designer - John L. Brodie - patented a bowler hat shaped steel helmet. After an evaluation, along with several other putative designs, it was chosen by the British Invention Committee as the British Standard Steel Helmet 'Type A'. The British Bowie helmet was in the form of a pressed wide rimmed bowl of hardened Hadfield 13% manganese steel, 0.035-inch thick. It had twice the ballistic strength of the Adrian helmet: able to withstand rupture by a blow of 1,600 pounds or more. It was fitted with an inner drawstring, leather liner and a strong, wide, leather chinstrap firmly secured to the inner rim of the helmet by two 'D' rings. It weighed around 2.2-pounds. Later models had a turned over rim to enhance the stiffness of the rim: in either format the rim of the helmet was a formidable weapon when used in'a Glaswegian Kiss' or 'à la Odd Job' fashion during hand-to-hand combat. The shape of the helmet was determined by the British priority to provide protection to the head and neck from shrapnel balls of shells exploding overhead: the sloping surface acting as a deflector.

The British helmet entered into service on the Western Front in limited numbers in October 1915 - in fact numbers were so restricted that they were issued as 'Trench Stores', i.e. used in rotation by the troops as they entered the Front Line. Concerns about its performance on active service led to changes that produced the Mark I in May 1915. Although it was not available in really large numbers by mid-1916, the participants of the First Battle of the Somme were given priority. Eventually the Mark I was issued to every soldier on the Western Front and remained in service until and after the Armistice.

The colouring of the British Brodie helmet varied enormously. The original Type One was painted in a mottled multi-coloured camouflage mode, but plain uniform colours were also used; predominately grey or green. The Mark I had a textured non-reflective effect produced by sand and paint mixture to give a khaki colour finish and that became the standard. Later in the war, unit badges, or signs, were painted, or stippled, on the sides of the helmet to identify the wearer.

The German Steel Helmet:

The Germans were the last of the major belligerent nations to get large numbers of its steel helmet - a.k.a. the 'coal scuttle' - into the field. But, typically, the format was based on proper scientific principles, and although considerably heavier than the Allies' (around 2.6-pounds), and not as tough as the British Bowie, it was generally considered to be the best of the bunch offering the best overall protection.

The prototype of the helmet (Stalhelm) was designed by Dr. Frederich Schwerd, with advice from a army surgeon (he of the comment about the pea sized steel fragments). It was the result of a long series of laboratory and field tests including the comparative testing to destruction of the French and British steel helmets. In December 1915, a complete German battalion evaluated them under field conditions and pronounced them fit for operations. But it was not until a couple of months later that the 'Model 1916' was put into full operational use. By mid-1916, 300,000 'coal scuttles' were in service on the Western Front.

The design was specifically aimed at providing a neck protector that stood away from the neck, and side extensions that went forward to protect the temples and out over the brow - just like its 2,000 year-old Roman predecessor. Viewed from almost any angle it looked quite extraordinary: it conveyed an air of malignant menace, only matched by the Nazi Swastika in the Second World War. This dramatic look was further exacerbated by the two ugly iron lugs that protruded from the smooth sides of the helmet. These lugs - which also bore ventilation holes - were intended to attach an additional frontal bulletproof armoured plate. The similarity of the helmet's shape to that of the menacing black Darth Vader helmet in the Star War movies is no co-incidence.

The helmet was formed from a sophisticated sheet-steel pressing process that produced in one piece the extra deep bowl with a flared rim. A technical feat that an American metallurgical evaluation team found to be extraordinarily sophisticated and, they opined, not currently reproducible by the American steel industry.

The helmet came in six sizes that meant that, along with the simple, three-piece, leather lining, a good fitting was assured. A wide, leather, chinstrap was attached with 'D' rings at the inner rim, adjacent to the ears of the wearer. Unit identification signs were painted or stippled on the sides of the helmet.

The coloration of the helmet was more venturous than that of the other armies. Originally, all came in field grey, but varied coloured cloth covers were introduced in late 1916, and the troops themselves used camouflage coloration and decoration. In 1917 the striking giraffe-like camouflage pattern was adopted. It had irregular, angular, black outlined cells filled with coloured panels of green, yellow, and brown producing an ominous science fiction look.

The Belgian helmets.

The Belgians used a version of the Adrian helmet from 1916 onwards.

The American helmet.

From the outset of their entry in the war, the Americans used a slightly modified version of the British helmet - the M1917 - but with steel of 10% stronger ballistic strength. An initial order was made for two million. The American version could resist penetration at 100 metres by a 230 grain round from a 0.45-inch calibre pistol with a velocity of 600-feet/square inch.

The Americans' own design of the steel helmet arrived too late for use on the Western Front.

Conclusion

Throughout history, there has been personal armour; especially for the mounted knights and their equivalent. The infantry, or their equivalent, was never quite so well equipped. In the first place armour of all kinds - plate, chain-mail and even leather - was extremely expensive, and the infantry were largely drawn from the lowest classes of society - except in some cases such as the Roman Legion - and unable to afford armour themselves. Secondly, the infantrymen had to remain nimble and unencumbered as it was their duty to fall upon and despatch the heavily armoured cavalry when they were dismounted from their horses. The Battle of Agincourt is the classic example of the infantry massacring the downed armoured cavalry.

None the less, the mores of the time in 1914 forced the commanders and politicians, confronted as they were with the frightful casualties of the early months of the Great War, to set up Committees to study what could be provided to the infantryman on the Western Front in the way of some personal protective armour. The British Expeditionary Force in August 1914 had none whatsoever.

Various formats and combinations were tried - often direct derivatives of what had been used many, many years before - with varying degrees of success and levels of acceptance by the intended beneficiaries.

Across the whole spectrum of the belligerent nations, what was universally successful was the sort of body armour that which least hindered the fighting ability of the combat soldier, and, at the same time, did not place him at some disadvantage with his adversary.

Accordingly, the only uniform piece of personal armour that proved useful and universally successful with the troops of all nations was the steel helmet. The obvious questions that remain unanswered are:

  • Why did not the French, over time, enhance the ballistic strength of the steel they used to the maximum available at the time i.e. at least double?
  • Why did not the British modify their otherwise excellent design of steel helmet to provide more protection to the neck and lower part of the face as did the German design? The Romans had shown the way with neck shielding extensions and detachable cheek pads.
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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 23 December 2008 12:07 )  

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