Body Armour

While the production of the military helmet took overall priority, development was also undertaken

German Sappenpanzer

A Belgian soldier, wearing an Italian service helmet and breastplate with 'èpaulières' shoulder defences, mans a forward trench on the Western Front. Most of the warring nations produced body armour during the Great War; the United States in particular developed numerous items, but few were used in combat. (Musée de l'Armée, Bruxelles)

A Belgian soldier, wearing an Italian service helmet and breastplate with 'èpaulières' shoulder defences, mans a forward trench on the Western Front. Most of the warring nations produced body armour during the Great War; the United States in particular developed numerous items, but few were used in combat. (Musée de l'Armée, Bruxelles)

of armour defences for other parts of the body, particularly the chest, abdomen and back since wounds in such areas were often fatal; those of the stomach had a mortality of about one in four, due generally to infection. Body armour was used in battle from 1915, but only on a limited basis. The equipment consisted for the most part of steel plates: either one-piece, shaped body shields, or multiple plates joined together in various ways, giving a range of protection levels against fragments, shrapnel and even small arms fire.

The French devised only a few items of body defence, including face shields for snipers and sentries as well as a series of visors attached to the standard helmet to protect the eyes; and an abdominal plate, also designed by Gen. Adrian. Some 100,000 of these were manufactured, but although ballistically sound they were cumbersome, and little used by the troops. Adrian also devised a breastplate which linked up with the abdominal defence. It did not see service, however, and the only body shields used in the field were commercial products such as the 'Lanciers'—see Plate B'2.

In the German Army up to 500,000 heavy silicon-nickel steel breastplates were issued from May 1917 (these could in fact be worn on either the front or back). Produced in two sizes—No. 1 large and No. 2 small, weighing 24-lbs and 22lbs iooz respectively—the 'Infanterie-Panzer' (infantry armour) was used by machine gun teams, sentinels and other troops in exposed positions. Because of its great weight it was too heavy to be worn with comfort during assaults, and its multiple-plate configuration made it too noisy for patrols; but it was favoured by the troops, who nicknamed it 'Sappenpanzer' (trench armour). It was proof against shrapnel, grenade fragments, and rifle fire at 500 yards. The Germans also issued a reinforcing plate for attachment to the ventilation lugs of the standard Stahlhclm to render the front of the helmet proof against rifle fire. Known as 'Stirnpan-zer' (brow armour), it was used by snipers and sentries; 50,000 examples were made.

Of all the warring powers, the British fielded the greatest variety of body armour obtained from official and commercial agencies. Development pursued three avenues of design following the types of armour known throughout history: a rigid 'hard' armour corresponding to plate; an intermediate type of multiple small scales, corresponding to mail or brigandine work; and a yielding 'soft' armour, corresponding to the quilted defences of yore. Over a score of body shields were available from private firms, and many were purchased by men leaving for the front or by their anxious relatives. Most models seem to have given satisfaction, for all manufacturers received unsolicited letters that testified to the saving of life and limb. The Army, however, did not recommend the wholesale issue of body armour, and provided only sufficient to equip approximately two per cent of the men.

One of the earliest and most widely employed rigid models was the Dayfield Body Shield, formed of a number of separate plates protecting the chest and back. Weighing between 14 and i81bs depending on configuration, over 20,000 sets were in use on the Western Front by October 1917; but again, it was often discarded as a hindrance by the fighting troops. For this reason continuous efforts were made to lighten the various armours, which had the effect of reducing ballistic efficiency. Here once more was the armourer's age-old problem: heavy but effective models were unpopular, but lighter variants were despised for their lack of protection.

Numerous variants of rigid body shields were produced, weighing generally between 5 and iolbs and providing ballistic protection on a par with that of the Mark i steel helmet. Of these some notable examples were the 'Best Body Shield', the 'Portobank' armoured waistcoat, the government issue BEF' (British Expeditionary Forces) model, the 'Star' body defence and the 'Army and Navy' body shield. In an effort to provide a standard issue armour the Munitions Inventions Board finally manufactured the 'EOB' (Experimental Ordnance Board) model in 1917. It weighed gilbs and was formed of three elements: a breastplate, backplate and groin protector. It gave protection against shrapnel and grenade fragments, and it could resist a .45cal. pistol bullet at 800 feet/second or a rifle ball at 1,000 feet/second. In the last two years of the war the 'EOB' was issued in fairly substantial numbers.

Of the intermediate type of armour, the majority of models were formed of small square plates of metal attached to a canvas support covering the chest and back in the form of a scaled waistcoat, or 'brigandine'. Garments such as 'Berkeley's Flexible

Armour Guard', the 'Franco-British Cuirass' and 'Wilkinson's Safety Service Jacket' enjoyed considerable sales because of their low weight of about 3lbs. Being closely fitting, they were considered comfortable, but they gave little protection except against very low-velocity projectiles such as expended shrapnel balls or small shell splinters. If struck by a bullet, one of the scales was apt to be pushed into the wearer's body causing horrendous wounds or death.

In the field of'soft' body armour, the Munitions Inventions Board conducted numerous experiments with fibrous materials such as balata, kapok, flax, hair, cotton, sisal, hemp and silk. Whereas steel plate defeated projectiles by its rigidity and hardness at the point of impact, the aim of soft armour was to slow and trap the projectile so that

Men of the New Zealand Medical Corps dispense tea to German prisoners during the Third Battle of Ypres, 5 October 1917. The men at extreme left and right are wearing Dayiield Body Shields. (Imp. War Mus.)

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