By James L. Ballou & Jeff Noll
A very personal collection of photographs taken by Lt. Augustus True in 1918 added a special spontaneity to the book on the BAR, Rock in a Hard Place. He used a Kodak Brownie camera that produced 1x1-inch contact prints. This portal to the past showed young men away from home acting as typical teenagers as they played with the US body armor sent to France for evaluation. There is a certain “medieval” look to the men as they brandished axes and poles against one another. Gus True just happened to capture the historic experimental American body armor. The helmet on the man with the BAR is not German, but rather an American experimental design No. 5. It was rejected because it was almost indistinguishable from the German, “coal scuttle” helmet. The chest plate in this photo looks German, but if you closely examine the lower plate, you will notice a circular codpiece that does not match the German but corresponds to an American design. The leg armor is also American in design. No one should be under the delusion that these were bulletproof. As the photograph clearly shows, .30-06 bullets from the BAR penetrate the steel quite easily. Note the rather large dents from .45 ACP rounds that would have inflicted “blunt trauma” and led to the supposed incapacitation of the wearer.
America’s entry into the Great War pressed home the same lessons the Germans had learned over their 3 years of participation in static warfare. Human bodies and bits of metal, whether bullets or shell fragments, cannot exist in the same place at the same time without devastating results to the human body. It is not a surprise that America followed the same path that the Germans did years earlier. The path was simply cladding the human body with steel; not unlike medieval armies had done centuries earlier with their breastplates, enclosed helmets and shields. The only difference then was protection against the arrow, sword and mace. However, the science was exactly the same. Metal is tougher than flesh so it is preferable that the weapon hit metal first, hopefully avoiding all contact with flesh.
German body armor was no doubt based on Fifteenth Century Teutonic Knights armor and consisted of overlapping plates weighing 8-10 kg (17-1/2 to 22-1/2 pounds). The body armor was made of Krupp steel and was marked by the three-ringed “Ballentine” mark. German General Ludendorf wrote, “The armor is not generally intended for operations, but it will prove valuable for sentries, listening posts, garrisons of shell holes, gun teams of machine guns scattered over the ground, etc., especially as a protection for the back. I request that the armour be issued to units destined for threatened sectors of the line, so that they can become familiar with its use before they go into the line.” Evidently, armor could be worn on the soldier’s chest or back.
This armor was made in two distinct types. The first type (photographed in this article) had no distinguishing attachments. Its use demonstrated that (1) it was very difficult to hold a rifle to ones shoulder and (2) equipment belts had a tendency to slip off. The second type had a rifle rest attached to the right shoulder and two hooks to support the weight of equipment. It also had provisions for a strap at the top of the shoulders to secure the armor to the wearer. The second type is by far less frequently encountered by today’s collector.
In wars previous to World War I, cloth headgear was worn and used for identification only, not for protection. According to the cooking show Good Eats, leeks were abundant in the ancient Mediterranean world. They were attached to the top of soldier’s headgear for easy identification in battle. This eventually evolved into the elaborate plumage used by the world’s armies.
Steel helmets were introduced in 1916 sans plumage. As usual, the Germans had a superior design with the so-called “Coal Scuttle” helmet. They developed a remarkable progressive method of stamping out a design that covered the head and neck. The steel pressings are done in gradual steps to avoid thinning at the top. There were two ventilation lugs, one on either side of the helmet, which allowed the mounting of a steel frontal plate for additional protection, giving the helmet a “Frankenstein” appearance. In fact, the present day American helmets, known as a “Fritz” design due to their characteristic profile, gives credit to its German origin.
A conference took place September 4, 1915, in Berlin, to discuss development of a new steel helmet. On September 7th, the Clothing Section of the German War Ministry documented the requirements. Among these was keeping the weight to 1 kg to ensure maximum use and wear by the troops. They recognized that increasing the thickness of the helmet had a direct effect on its weight. Great care was taken during the development of this new steel helmet to protect the soldier from artillery fragments, which accounted for 80% of the head wounds. (Rifle fire accounted for less than 20%.) A helmet capable of protecting the wearer from small arms fire would weigh 6 kg and was considered to be too heavy. On September 20, 1915 Capt. Schwerd, a development team leader, provided initial details on a special steel frontal plate designed to protect against small arms fire. “The necessity for special protection during momentary tactical conditions in trench fighting and against hostile infantry fire can be provided by the addition to the helmet a cap-shaped, stamped frontal shield about 5mm thick and weighing about 1 kg. This frontal shield is analogous to the armor plate on an artillery piece. It must be carried in the soldier’s personal gear and must be able to be quickly fastened on to the helmet at the command “Protective shields on!” (“Schutz-schilde hoch!”) The new steel helmet, with frontal shields, was initially issued to troops at Verdun. The frontal plate itself was not used extensively, but they were very favorably impressed with the basic helmet.
A pamphlet provided to units issued the new helmet included the following instructions for the use of the frontal plate: “The Frontal Armor Plate. The frontal armor plate protects the wearer primarily against infantry small arms fire from a distance of 50 meters and beyond, but not against armor-piercing bullets. It protects the forehead and temples of the wearer, but extends outward beyond the sides of the helmet so that even the rear portion of the head is somewhat protected from frontal fire. The frontal plate can only be worn for short periods of time because of its weight and therefore it will only be used in special circumstances (in trench fighting, by forward observers, and the like). Its shape allows it to be worn on all sizes of helmets. It hangs on the ventilation lugs on the side of the helmet and is secured in position by a strap.”
The frontal plate is a rare accessory for the 1916 helmet as a single frontal plate was originally intended to be issued with about every 20 helmets. The actual ratio is more like one frontal plate to every 150 helmets produced. To further explain their scarcity, the following was written on January 1, 1918, by the Quartermaster-General West. “Regarding: the nickel-steel head shield for riflemen. For communications with the War Ministry, War Office document number 187/12. 17 K.R.A., it appears that there should still be a number of riflemen’s shields in the field. These shields are no longer being manufactured. Ostensibly, the shields are being used to reinforce the trenches. The War Office is investigating the possibility of recalling these shields so that they may be smelted to regain their nickel content. This nickel shortage is very pressing at the moment and we request that you report to us no later than 15 January 1918.” How many frontal shields were recovered from “reinforcing trenches” and met the smelter will never be known, but the collector should be aware of reproductions being passed as originals.
The British also developed a helmet whose primary job was to protect troops’ heads from overhead shellbursts with resultant slivers and shards. The Mk I British helmet, called the “Brodie”, was copied by the American Army in 1917 (the Liberty Helmet) and remained in service up to and including early World War II.
The British also experimented with body armor. They assigned no less a personage as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to do a feasibility study on the use of armor for the infantrymen. Gen. Sir Douglas Haig dismissed Doyle’s results because he thought that the use of body armor was “ungentlemanly.”
Ironically, it was the advent of firearms that made medieval armor obsolete. It was the invention of improved steel made at the turn of the century by giants, such as Krupp Industries, that made it possible to develop better protection. Another of Lt. True’s photos shows two men, one armed with two 1911 Colts, in mock battle. One can clearly see the American scaled waistcoat or jazeran armor. They look like fish scales but are made of pressed manganese steel the thickness of the helmet. The group photo by Lt. True of six is an historic collection of all the experimental armor in France in 1918. This remarkable collection of photos captured a Kodak “moment” showing an historic collection of body armor. All of the men are wearing a steel gorget of American design.
World War II
Other than rolling body bunkers, the Americans and Allies never employed personal body armor, since most protection proved inadequate against rifle caliber rounds. However, in June 1943, the 8th Air Force requested samples of body armor for its airmen. It seems that most injuries to those men were a result of 20mm bursts. They also needed protection from flack bursts from the dreaded 88mm antiaircraft guns.
For this design, the Air Force turned to WWI Wilkinson Sword prototypes. This consisted of overlapping manganese 2-inch square steel plate’s sown into light cloth with heavy flax backing. This simple design, found in nature, had been used since the 15th century. Modern material could provide some improvement.
It had been found that in WWI the overlapping layers of silk could result in some protection. Because of this, nylon, a more modern fiber, was used to hold the steel squares. The M-1 vest weighed 17 pounds 8 ounces.
The problem was, if the vest was too heavy and cumbersome it would remain unused back at the base. The obvious solution was to use aluminum to cut the weight without diminishing its protection. This resulted in the T-40 vest. The combination of aluminum and silk became standardized as the “Flyer’s Vest” M-6 and M-7 on July 1, 1945. It weighted 14 pounds 8 ounces, a savings of nearly 3 pounds.
It is not well known in the bulletproof vest world, that fiberglass was actually used in WWII with the introduction by Dupont of Doron, a glass fiber impregnated with plastic. This was made into a vest in August of 1944. Doron had a greater resistance to shell fragments than Hadfield Manganese Steel. Though superior to steel, it was not as efficient as the aluminum plates, so it was never accepted. In the 1970s, it took a man like Richard Davis (of Second Chance Vests) to revive the use of a new plastic, Kevlar. Rolling body shields from WWI evolved into “Body Bunkers” which were used by police in the 1990s. Doron, used in WWII was replaced by Kevlar introduced in the 1970s. The expression, “There is nothing new under the sun”, is true. It’s all a matter of timing.
(I would like to thank Jeff Noll for his assistance in adding valuable material from his extensive WWI collection, Edwin F. Libby and Robert G. Segel. Lt. August True photos, courtesy of Mrs. David True.)
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