This great article from The Great War in a Different Light come originally from the “War Budget” in June 1917.
Under the title “'Human Armadillos' Back to the Middle Ages in More Ways than One” it looked at the speculation surrounding body armour.
'Human Armadillos' - Back to the Middle Ages in More Ways than One.
“This reminds one of a visit to the Tower of London," said a member of a shopping expedition, struck by the displays of breastplates, helmets, knee-caps and masks in the West End windows. History, it seems, will never get tired of repeating itself, though scarce a minute passes that is not the dawn of a new idea. It has often been noted that one has but to keep a garment long enough to find it again at the apex of fashion. So with the shield and buckler of Assyria, Greece, and Rome.
Luckily for the newspapers history's repetitions are rarely wearisome but often crowded with variety. The body armour of the middle ages was a rich man's luxury, to be as carefully preserved as the family plate.
The sartorial blacksmith's bill for a reliable suit of chain mail ran into four figures — at the present value of £1 sterling — and had to be ordered "for delivery before the next war." Prior to the invention of chain armour it was no uncommon experience for a knight, besieged in his iron skin, to die of suffocation, after resisting all the prods of his enemy's tin openers. This season's wear is far less expensive than a Paris gown and almost as light.
Bullets Miss Their Billets
Statistics of the present war prove the great importance of providing armour for soldiers — especially helmets. Fourteen per cent, of the wounds received by trench fighters are head wounds. When heads are protected by helmets very few such wounds are said to be fatal. The helmet often turns aside bullets that strike it, and even when they do penetrate the steel head covering the force of the missile is often retarded to such an extent that only a superficial scalp wound is inflicted.
A European firm has developed a fabric which, although of light weight, is said to astonish everybody who has had the opportunity of testing its impenetrability. It is being made into shields of two types: First, the single shield, which is worn in front and serves to protect the wearer from bullets; second, double shield for protecting the chest and back. With regard to the latter type it has been found in the present war that some protection for the soldier's back is necessary because of the high percentage of casualties arising from flying shrapnel.
A pad of fabric is incased in an outer covering of khaki fabric, the former being a booklike section with several plaits to the inch, chemically treated after it is made up and the whole inserted within the outer jacket and sewed up. A test was made on a shield placed against an empty carbide tin with a view to demonstrating the ability of the fabric to protect airplane tanks and other equipment. Although two bullets struck the shield on the tin, neither of these succeeded in penetrating the shield. The only damage to the tin was in the form of slight indentations.
Defeating the Rifle
A military observer who had the opportunity of examining two bullets that were fired from a service revolver at eight paces, with a bullet velocity of 750 feet per second, at one of the fabric shields, said that the lead bullets plainly showed the fabric markings on their mashed noses, demonstrating that the fabric was the last thing struck by them before they -came to a halt in the folds of the shield.
Another firm has patented and is manufacturing a steel-lined officer's jacket which suggests the old coats of mail though in outward appearance it resembles an ordinary close-fitting coat.
It is claimed that the jacket will resist a .45-calibre revolver bullet at sixty feet.
The garments are fitted by experts and the highly-tempered steel with which they are lined is said to be so evenly distributed that the slight additional weight is not apparent to the wearer. This jacket is designed to afford protection against shrapnel fragments.
A bullet-proof stretcher has also been invented. This consists of a long metal shield, arched at the top, and high enough to enable the attendants to stand upright within. At the front end the shield is rounded and sloped backward to deflect bullets, and two "eyes" are provided, through which the attendants can see to direct their course and locate the wounded.
The whole contrivance is mounted on four wheels, and is provided with arrangements for supporting a stretcher. With this contrivance two hospital attendants can make their way in safety over a field exposed to rifle fire, and, after rolling the shield over a wounded soldier, he is placed on the stretcher, when a retreat is made to a place of safety.
Only after careful consideration and experiments, resulting in conclusive proof that armour could and would save the lives of soldiers was such protection re-introduced into the French army.
Thin armour such as is worn cannot deflect or stop a bullet coming at high velocity from a modern rifle, but it has been proved by statistics carefully gathered that many wounds are more or less superficial, or that the bullets were almost spent when they reached the soldiers. Besides, wounds from shrapnel are not always direct or of great force, but frequently reach the soldiers at an angle and with diminished power.
Utility of the Helmet
It has been found also that since some of the French soldiers have been wearing metal helmets and other metal protection the number of wounded has increased while the number killed has diminished. This would tend to show that these attempts at protecting soldiers have saved many lives, and that if the vital spots are covered a soldier's chance of surviving is increased manifold, perhaps 50 to 75 per cent.
There are on record many cases in which a bullet has been turned aside by a metal helmet to such a degree as to inflict only a slight scalp wound, and without the arresting power of the metal the soldier would certainly have been killed.
A rifle bullet coming at full speed often passes through a leg, arm or body, and it is not expected that the armour worn will stop such bullets, but it has been proved that the armour does often aid in decreasing the speed of a slow bullet or bit of shrapnel, either preventing a mortal wound or stopping the projectile altogether.
Results of experiments have been reported to the French Academies of Medicine and Surgery, with the result that every effort is now being made to equip all of the artillery and infantry with as much of this armour as can be manufactured in the rush of munitions making.
The armour to be adopted by the United States War Department is said to be a modification of the medieval suits of mail, and is described as being composed of small rectangular steel plates fastened together at their corners by steel rings. This forms a flexible sheet which, in turn, is riveted to strong khaki cloth. In the centre of this steel sheet or mail is a hole through which the soldier passes his head. The sheet of armour is long enough entirely to cover the front and back of the trunk of the body. To protect the neck and head a "collarette" of the same construction is worn. With the addition of a helmet the modern warrior, excepting the arms, legs and face, is made bullet-proof to a very high degree.