Could Body Armor Have Saved Millions in World War I?

The follies that led to poor helmets and a lack of torso protection for men in the trenches.
German trenches for article.jpg
German trenches on Aisne River, in northeastern France. (Wikimedia Commons)

Unlike ancient bloodlettings lost to memory, World War I lingers in our collective DNA. The image of the trenches is our icon of hell on earth. Ten million soldiers died in mud-ditches and no-mans-land during the Great War, and we remember this dark narrative because they died for nothing. After reaching pinnacles of human achievement, civilization set about to destroy itself out of pride over imagined slights and disrespect.

We let 5,000 of our young men die after 1941 because we did not want them to look like Germans.

In total contrast, the early 1900s's Metropolitan Museum of Art's Arms and Armor Collection was a magical place. Boys steeped in Howard Pyle's Champions of the Round Table or Arthur Conan Doyle's The White Company (and N.C. Wyeth's illustrations!), would have come here to see the armor ... and dream.

But what does the Met armor collection have to do with World War I? We know from war poets like Rupert Brooke that so many of those boys would as men lead their soldiers and themselves to muddy death, still idealizing the knights they once dreamed to be.

But there is another irony, sadder still, now forgotten: Medieval armorers and men-at-arms knew a secret that would have spared perhaps 30 percent of those who died in battle. We have the evidence right at the Metropolitan Museum itself.

Bashford Dean, zoologist and curator of the Met's arm's and armor collection, knew that the techniques of medieval fighters could save lives on the Western Front: Not thousands, but hundreds of thousands of lives. In that context, the U.S. Government brought him in to take charge of the American body armor program in 1917.

As Major of Ordnance commanding the U.S Army Armor Unit, and as Chairman of the Committee on Helmets and Body Armor at the National Research Council, he showed how soldiers could survive the terrors of modern battle. There were similar big armor enterprises in Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, and even in Japan.

But with such knowledge everywhere, why did the body armor business produce almost nothing from 1914 to 1918?

In August 1914, it was already clear this was a different kind of war. It sucked in millions -- in fact, nearly the entire young male age cohorts of whole societies.

Casualties were horrendous as armies discovered how to best deploy massed high-angle howitzers and mortars (and to a much lesser extent, machine guns). In the opening four weeks of war, France lost 250,000 men in futile charges. As the war went on, horrendous casualties would shortly become catastrophic casualties.

So what was to be done? Ditch the red pantaloons and blue greatcoats. Check. Dig, and then dig deep and complex field fortifications -- called "trenches" -- to protect from artillery barrage. Check.

But what about protecting our own bodies from fire? In Medieval times no effort was spared to shield flesh from blade and crossbow bolt. Why not bullets and shell fragments too?

It took two long years of death before European armies even deployed helmets for their soldiers. Helmets should have been the flash-urgent priority of all armies from the start. World War II wound studies show 21 percent of all reported injuries were to the head, even though it is but 12 percent of our body area. World War I hospital reports also show about 20 percent to the head and thorax.

Two years to address even this? But when it helmets were brought in at last, the Allied results were tragically suboptimal. The Brodie (British) and Adrian (French) helmets were hugely deficient in protecting the head and neck. They seem in retrospect more intent on creating a brand icon of national identity in war -- the Adrian was a cross between a fireman's casque and the bravura Napoleonic Cuirassier helm, while the Brodie was the spitting image of the longbowmen's Chapel de Fer at Agincourt . Only the Germans created an effective helmet, borrowing liberally from one of the very best medieval designs, the Salade (or Sallet ).

Italian helmet for article.jpg

A Sallet-style helmet from late 15th-century Italy. (Wikimedia Commons)

The problem was, the German Stahlhelm became so instantly iconic that no Allied design dared to come near it for fear that their soldiers might somehow be doing silent homage to Hun -- thus dooming their effectiveness! More on that later.

If Afghanistan and Iraq were blast and shock wars, World War I was a fragment war. Dean, writing after the war, cites different medical sources, but the range of casualties due to fragments (artillery and mortars) was as high as 70 to 95 percent.

Steel fragments do not come at the soldier like rifle or machine gun bullets, at high velocity (up to 3000 feet per second). Nearly all of them move at less than 1,000 feet per second. The best helmet steel could and did defeat these. But helmets only protected the head -- and Allied helmets covered the head poorly.

Still, 18 to 20-gauge helmet steel (.036-.040 inches) could stop a hot cupro-nickel jacketed 230 grain slug from a .45 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP) fired pointblank. So alloys like silicon nickel or nickel-manganese-vanadium could protect against almost all fragments. With such steels already in high production for helmets, why not protect the torso too?

Weight was the big bugaboo of 20th century body armor. Some wanted armor panoplies that could stop machine gun and rifle rounds even at 200 yards. The Germans ramped up distributing their lobster-like suite toward war's end. Intended mostly for machine gunners, and at 22-27 pounds, it was considered too heavy for regular infantry. Was there any hope for the front line soldier?

Presented by

Michael Vlahos is a professor in the Strategy and Policy Department at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins' Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Counterterrorism, American Exceptionalism, and Retributive Justice.

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