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The Development of Helmets and Body Armour in the First World War – A History of “What-Ifs”

June 20, 2019
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The soldier of the First World War initially went into action with no personal protection at all. For headgear they were issued only with caps, kepis or, at best, a leather helmet like the famous Pickelhaube. The thinking behind this was that modern rifles were far too powerful to be deflected by a steel breast plate capable of being worn by a soldier as part of his equipment. But this reasoning  did not take into account the effect that artillery – and more specifically its ability to produce fragments and shrapnel – would have upon the battlefield.

Though an icon of the Prussian army, the Pickelhalbe was essentially useless in the trenches.

By 1915 the casualties caused by shrapnel, particularly to the head, were all too apparent. French General August-Louis Adrian developed the helmet that bore his name, the Adrian, and an immediate reduction in casualties and in fatalities was noted.

The initial design by Gen. Adrian was a steel skull cap that soldiers would wear under their issue cap. Apparently this was inspired by Adrian talking to a wounded soldier who had been saved from death due to wearing a salad bowl on his head!

French troops with their Adrian helmets – the first modern military helmet. Though only made of mild steel, rather than the hardened metal of later headgear, casualties figures much improved. Before its introduction one-in-four head casualties died of their wounds. After, it was one-in-seven[1].

Britain and Germany both adopted the helmet in short order to protect the heads of their soldiers. Both designs – the British Brodie and the German Stahlhelm – were essentially modern versions of medieval helmets.

Two different solutions to the same problem, the German Stahlhelm and the British Brodie.

With the acknowledgement that low velocity projectiles were a threat to the head of soldiers came a realisation that perhaps armours could be fabricated that similarly protected abdomens and limbs. Most nations would field a host of different designs – some improvisations, some products of actual development programs – and they would often be used in numbers that are surprisingly large.

British Body Armours

The British developed multiple designs in two different armour philosophies; “yielding”, made from silk or fibre and designed to absorb projectiles and “rigid”, designed to deflect them.

The Chemico Body Shield was an example of yielding armour. Weighing six pounds it was composed of layers of silk, cotton, linen and tissue, then hardened with resin. It was only used in limited numbers.

 

The Franco-British was an early armour, similar to lamellar, that was made in France and sold privately to British troops. Light and able to fit under a tunic the “life-saving waistcoat” was a popular purchase, though of limited value against anything but low-velocity shrapnel.

 

Made from manganese steel, the Dayfield Body Shield was one of the more widespread official armours used by the British, with 20,000 issued. It was used by troops on high-risk duties such as wire-cutting and sentry, but was heavy at eighteen pounds and cumbersome.

 

The “B.E.F” was one of the better design developed. Seven and half pound and made of several steel plates, it proved capable of resisting pistol bullets.

 

Designed by the Munitions Invention Board as an official body armour, the EOB armour weighed nine-and-a-half pounds and was issued in “pretty large quantities”.[2] It would repel pistol bullets and resisted rifle bullets in tests. This example is fitted with a silk collar which was also issued, but not considered a success in trench conditions.

The Corelli body shield was a design more in line with the thinking of ballistic plates today. Made from steel and able to resist a standard bullet at ten metres, the Corelli weighed seventeen pounds and was considered far too heavy for use.

French Armours

An early appreciator of the need for better protection for troops with the introduction of his helmet design, General Adrian also recognised the need for body armour. Early in the war he concluded that wounds to two areas of the body resulted in fatalities – the head and the gut. As a result he set about developing a simple, light weight plate armour that protected the lower abdomen.

The Adrian abdomen plate weighed two pounds and could be combined with groin, thigh and chest plate protectors. Although 100,000 were made, they proved unpopular with the troops and don’t seem to have seen a lot of service.

Although the French tried multiple different designs, none seem to have been very successful. One measure which was were armour epaulettes; simple steel upper shoulder protectors that slipped into a standard uniform tunic and were made from the off cuts of helmet manufacture.

Though only adding some additional protection from above to air burst artillery, they did find favour at the front and were made in hundreds of thousands. Though official testing for actual effectiveness doesn’t seem to have occurred, the fact that they found so much use in the trenches would indicate a useful piece of equipment.

Additionally, the French recognised that their Adrian helmet was not perfect and made a host of experimental models trying to perfect a design. They also spent considerable effort on developing visored helmets in an effort to protect the eyes of their soldiers.

The Polack design (here mounted on a standard French helmet) gave great visibility but was only effective against mid-sized fragments. Small splinters could find their way through the slots and a bullet hit would actually cause more injury from the visor disintegrating. Despite this it was used and received favourable reports.

The Dunand helmet featured a heavier visor that impressed the Americans enough that they ordered 10,000 examples for use by their troops. Manufacturing issues led to none being made by the time the war ended.

American Armours

Though late to the war, the US Army was as interested in body protection as any of the other belligerents. On their entry the Americans adopted the British Brodie helmet; they would also go on to make 2,700,000 of these before the end of the war. They also purchased Adrian’s for units working alongside French divisions.

They also had a rather remarkable expert to assist in their development program; Bashford Dean, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum.

Dean was a prodigy. Entering the College of the City of New York at the age of 14 he graduated in 1886 and received his PhD in zoology and palaeontology from Columbia University in 1890. Though his academic focus was Ichthyology, he had a great passion for medieval armour and eventually helped found the Met’s Department of Arms and Armor.

With the huge casualties occurring in the war, Dean applied his intellect to the matter and compiled a huge amount of data on casualty figures. Combining this with his knowledge of medieval armour he developed a range of helmet designs and body armours.

The model No.2 was modelled by Dean on helmets from the ancient world and, he claimed, provided the best possible protection for the soldier. However, the design had some problems transitioning into production. Though Ford would eventually produce a couple of thousand in late 1918, this was too late.

Designed to integrate the better protection of the No.2 with the ease of manufacture of the Brodie, the No.5 was considered better than the British helmet in that it provided greater protection to the side and back of the wearers head. However, it was considered as being too similar to the German standard helmet.

Like something a knight would wear, the No.7 had several variants, but all were enclosed heavy helmets. They were intended for machine gunners and sentries.

Dean would make numerous armour prototypes on behalf of the US Ordnance Dept., culminating in this design, seen being worn along with his No.5 helmet. An unobscured view of the armour can be seen in the picture at the top of the page. The design featured arm protectors and was designed to allow the wearer to use a rifle unimpeded.

 

Dean was not the only American inventor labouring on body armour. Dr. Brewster of New Jersey invented this panoply that proved proof against a Lewis light machine gun at close range. We know this because Brewster insisted on wearing the armour whilst being shot! Fitted with a spring cushioning system, the impact was apparently extremely light. However at 40 pounds the armour was judged not to be and declined.

 

German Armours

The Germans, with typical thoroughness, recognised from the beginning that there would be tasks that soldiers had to undertake that required more durable helmets than the standard. Though they did experiment with specialist designs, like other nations, they also built the ability into their standard helmet from the start to accept an add-on plate

Normally issued to snipers, machine gunners and sentries, the add-on armour plate for the standard German Stahlhelm was around 6 mm thick and weighed between 5 and 7 pounds. It overbalanced the helmet and was not particularly popular.

The Germans also issued towards the end of the war a dedicated bullet-proof mask for their snipers. Worn without a helmet, it weighed 17 pounds, was 6mm thick and could apparently resist a standard rifle bullet.

Whereas the Allies fielded body armours in comparatively limited numbers the Germans ordered it in large numbers, notably the famous Sappenpanzer. An estimated 500,000 were issued.

Widely used, the Sappenpanzer armour protected the front of the soldier effectively, but was heavy at between 20 and 24 pounds.

 

 

Conclusion

Numerous other nations experimented with various armours during the war, with various results, though none ever adopted a set for general issue.[3]

Though hundreds of thousands of sets of body armour were produced it gives an indication of the sheer scale of the First World War that this never really impacted on our consciousness of the war, leading to the impression that body armour was barely used.

The limitations of the available materials, technology and far more pressing needs for war production meant that body armour never really had a chance to make a larger impact on the conflict – an intriguing and arguably tragic possibility. As Michael Vlahos states:

‘Keeping fragments out of a soldier’s torso meant survival, pure and simple. France lost 1.75 million dead out of a total population of 39 million. Would not losing a half million or more men not have been welcome to wives, mothers, and children?’

[1] Dean, Bashford; Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare; Yale University Press (1920), p. 68

[2] Ibid p.126

[3] Anyone interested in this subject is strongly urged to read Bashford Dean’s book Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare.

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Ed Nash

Ed Nash

Ed Nash has spent years traveling around the world. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria; his book on his experiences, Desert Sniper, was published by Little, Brown in September 2018.
Ed Nash

Ed Nash

Ed Nash has spent years traveling around the world. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria; his book on his experiences, Desert Sniper, was published by Little, Brown in September 2018.

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