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.

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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.

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 ).

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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?

Enter Bashford Dean and his team. Met armorers crafted a battle harness with complete torso protection, front and back, for about 8.5 pounds With pauldrons (shoulder guards), couters (elbow) and vambraces (forearm), add another 4 pounds With helmet -- and Dean offered the two finest battle helmets of modern times -- it all came to just over 15 pounds Quite wearable, you would think, given that U.S. soldiers' full panoply today can reach 40pounds, close to 15th century full-body plate armor.

Moreover, Dean's panoply was fully cushioned with "vulcanized sponge-rubber," and with the latest alloys, could stop a .45 ACP at 1000 ft. per second (and a rifle ball at 1250 ft. per second). In terms of coverage, ease and comfort, and raw protection, this was as close as anyone in the war came to the Holy Grail of personal body armor. Deployed in the big American Expeditionary Force (AEF) offensive at the Meuse-Argonne, it could have cut 26,000 battle deaths by one third or more.

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Bashford Dean

Why do I believe body armor would have worked as advertised? Just think: If three-quarters of all combat casualties were from fragments, and if most fatalities from fragments penetrated the head and torso, then taking the head and torso out of reach of fragments should mean a lot. Just one data point: Army analysis of flak jackets for World War II bomber crews. There was no ambiguity: with flak jackets, 58 percent fewer casualties. Period.

Dean's "half armor" went exactly nowhere. Sure, it was worth ditching most of the arm defenses. The Springfield-Mauser battle rifle depended on smoothly reciprocating the bolt and recharging the weapon from stripper clips every five rounds. Medieval arm defenses, no matter how well articulated, were simply going to get in the way. But torso and shoulder defenses were another matter. In fact, the Met's cuirass itself was carefully cut out for effortless shouldering of the Springfield.

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A Springfield rifle. (Wikimedia Commons)

So why was nothing done? I believe that there were three impediments worth noting.

The first, fear and loathing of "The Hun" by the Allies was the upfront impediment to American helmet design. Stalhelmophobia lasted for decades. When the U.S. finally adopted a new helmet, the M1 (Pot) in 1941, it was a distinct improvement over the Brodie. But it still held off protecting temple and neck -- for fear it might look too German.

Studies show that this helmet saved over 70,000 lives in World War II, but had Dean's Model 5, or better yet Model 2, been adopted, it would have saved perhaps another 5,000 American soldiers. Get this: We let 5,000 of our young men die after 1941 because we did not want them to look like Germans.

Ironically, when we finally got around in the 1970s to replacing the Pot, we went straight to the Stahlhelm. The new PASGT helmet was in fact nicknamed Fritz.

The second impediment was the myth of weight, as in: those boys will never wear this stuff; they'll throw it off the first opportunity. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, our "boys" wear stuff as heavy as a medieval Gendarme. They suffer up to 40 pounds (with helmet): Not gladly, but dutifully, because it saves lives.

Weight was not the real reason but an excuse, a rationalization. The general staffs and higher leadership of that age held a mindset wholly wrong to us. It was not exactly a mindset of death, but rather, in the spirit of that age, of sacrifice for the nation.

Hence, the third reason body armor was not the utmost priority was that leaders of World War I believed that sacrifice was inevitable and necessary in war, and moreover, society would willingly sacrifice its young men on the altar of the nation.

We know this from the outpouring at the news of war in August 1914. In Berlin, people were crying out that this was: "A holy moment," lit by the "holy flame of anger," were we passed "out of the misery of everyday life to new heights," to a "rebirth through war," "a revelation," finally to "awaken the belief in the future of our people," in a "wonderful unity of sacrifice, brotherhood, belief." Gertrude Baumer cried, "the limitations of our egos broke down, our blood flowed to the blood of the other, we felt ourselves one body in mystical unification."

The spirit of 1914 did not seek to shepherd and preserve lives at all costs. Today our soldier's lives are a precious treasure we spend at our peril. We are always afraid to lose too many, whatever "too many" might be.

But in that breathless time men were kissed and embraced on their journey to death, because their sacrifice would not only renew the nation; but in blood let it come alive. Protecting soldiers was not part of the program.

To stand in the Met's armor room as I first did in 1957, in the quiet of a late afternoon, was like entering a time machine. To face the panoply of Anne de Montmorency, Constable of France: The battle harness he wore when he was taken at St. Quentin by Phillip of Spain, in the battle that made Europe a Hapsburg enterprise, was breathtaking. (Only very recently has this armor been correctly identified as belonging to Henry VIII , but for me, the boy, the Met had a different label.)

So it must have felt in 1914 at the Met, and in armor collections all across Europe, as if the armored spirits of those knights, still clad in iron, had risen to help save those men of the trenches.

But saving men was not what that new war was about.


Update 5/1/2013:

It is heartening to have so many responses and meandering threads. Thank you! A few tropes were raised, however, about issues I did not have space to treat in a 2000 word essay. So here are a few quick responses:

About whether such armor could have been manufactured for millions: Just think, all the belligerents were producing shells, very big shells, by the millions and tens of millions. The artillery doctrines upon which such massive resource appropriation depended were, to be polite, highly flawed. How much better to have directly protected your men. It is also worth noting that it was far easier to fabricate breast-and-backplates than helmets.

And yes, French metallurgy in the urgent context of existential crisis was not able to deliver good alloys, but British manganese steel was quite acceptable. German and American alloys were superior, as my article indicates. 

Remember, the Deane Panoply was never intended to be bulletproof, but rather, like all modern helmets, to stop fragments. 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?

Body armor would thus have lowered overall casualties perhaps only marginally. My whole thesis is about deaths, or what we clinically call KIA. That is important.

And no, no Americans would have been killed collaterally because their helmet looked German. The 2 and 5 models were fully identifiable as American, and not German!

As for mobility on the battlefield, if you all think that a nine-pound cuirass is too heavy, then how do you approach today's reality, where we all wear 40 -pound harnesses, and are proud to be alive? If soldiers could put up with a three-pound helmet, then a nine-pound cuirass (including backplate), is totally in the combat zone. Unless you guys have more relevant combat experience.

This entire exercise was what some call a "thought exercise." The whole point of such an excursion is to test out why an outcome so terrible and so preventable happened as it in fact did. In practical, realistic terms, it is of course wholly unlikely that the major belligerents could possibly have introduced effective, widely deployed body armor during the war. Only the Germans and the Brits did so, and only at the very end.

But the US might have done so, because we had the means,the expertise, and the targeted research (Deane) to do so. Plus, it might so easily have been transportable to the next war.

But it was not. Hence my piece.