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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
Numerous other nations experimented with various armours during the war, with various results, though none ever adopted a set for general issue.
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?’
 Dean, Bashford; Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare; Yale University Press (1920), p. 68
 Ibid p.126
 Anyone interested in this subject is strongly urged to read Bashford Dean’s book Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare.