WWI Body Armor: Plate Mail in the Trenches

By Tom Laemlein
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WWI Body Armor: Plate Mail in the Trenches

November 29th, 2022

9 minute read

At the outset of the Great War, old-world planning ran head-on into the realities of modern technology. Vast numbers of men were thrown into the grinder, and the losses were staggering. Scrambling for solutions, military planners looked backward for one possible answer: armor. With WWI body armor, military leaders looked for a tactical advantage while the men in the trenches looked for any edge to stay alive. In today’s article, Tom Laemlein looks at the trench armor developed during this time and judges its effectiveness. — Editor

wwi trench armor
This U.S. body armor shield was designed by Hamilton De Forest of New York. It bears a passing resemblance to modern bulletproof vests. It was one of the most lightweight WWI designs. Image: NARA

Outback Origins of WWI Plate Armor

In June of 1880, in the outback of Victoria, Australia, infamous bushranger Ned Kelly brought the idea of body armor back into the mindset of modern military planners. During a 15-minute shootout with police, Kelly wore a bush-forged and crafted suit of armor (weighing almost 100 pounds) and exchanged fire at close range with multiple officers.

ned kelly body armor in australia
Body armor becomes part of the military discussion due to the criminal Ned Kelly. “Ned Kelly’s Last Stand” by James Waltham Curtis, circa 1880. Via the Library of Victoria, Australia

Kelly’s armor effectively protected his head and upper body, but his arms and legs were exposed, and eventually he was knocked down by a pair of shotgun blasts that struck his legs. Kelly’s opponents were bewildered and frustrated by the ineffectiveness of their firearms, while the outlaw appeared in the morning mist almost as an apparition, strangely impervious to bullets.

As the bullets found the uncovered areas of his body, Kelly lost a considerable amount of blood, and the weight of his armor became difficult to manage. Each round that struck the improvised armor plate delivered a massive punch to Ned’s head or torso. When he was finally subdued it was found that Kelly had suffered more than 20 wounds. Even so, he survived to be tried and then hanged for his crimes. His body armor became an instant legend and was the subject of much discussion in international military circles. The medieval concept of body armor had been reborn in the modern world.

body armor tested in france 1918
US troops testing various styles of body armor including German armor worn by the man at the right. Note the French “Polack visors” on the experimental helmets worn at left and right. Image: NARA

Kelly’s body armor was crude, but nonetheless ingenious. The forged iron plates were said to be 6mm thick, capable of turning away the commonplace rounds of the time. The hits to the armor caused significant bruising and lacerations, as well as concussive effects. Despite this, Kelly was able to stay in the close-range fight for a surprising length of time.

Did WWI Soldiers Wear Body Armor?

Yes. A variety of plate and other armors were used in World War I.

us trench armor in world war i
A U.S. soldier demonstrates the American light body armor that includes shoulder-arm-hand protection. The soldier wears the U.S. experimental helmet No. 5. Image: Author’s collection

The rapid advances of military science in the late 19th century included a new look at body armor. The idea of making a foot soldier impervious to enemy fire has always been a goal, and the consequent impact on the morale of the assault troops is an obvious by-product.

But there is always a cost, and with body armor it is measured in pounds. It is a frustrating equation: the greater the protection, the greater the weight. Too much weight and the infantryman turns into more of a statue than a soldier. Not enough protection and the body armor idea becomes a pointless exercise.

making body armor at hale and kilbourne in 1918
Body armor plates under construction at Hale & Kilburn during 1918. Apparently, a large amount of the protective gear was made, but not issued to combat troops. Image: NARA

As the great powers approached an impending conflict in the early part of the 20th century, there were multiple new threats to the infantryman: high-powered rifles and machine guns, and modern explosive artillery ammunition that continued to grow in caliber and shrapnel effect. When World War I raged, artillery and machine guns would do the overwhelming amount of the killing. Some saw body armor as a smart way to minimize casualties.

Choosing Risk?

german helmet with extra armor wwi
The WWI German helmet carrying the additional armor protection — usually worn by snipers and sentries. Image: NARA

In “Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare” by Bashford Dean (Yale University Press 1920), the author and his team went to great lengths to study and measure the effectiveness of body armor (including helmets):

The results of our inquiry will show: (1) That the helmet has been adopted as part of the regular military equipment of many nations. (2) That helmets and body armor have been found, in broad averages, of distinct advantage to the wearers. (3) That body armor, in spite of the protection which it affords, finds little favor with the soldier. For numerous reasons, he would rather take his chances of injury. (4) That effort should be made, none the less, to demonstrate more clearly the protective value of body armor, to improve its material and design, and to reduce to a minimum the discomfort which will always be experienced by its wearer, in a word, to meet the objections to the use of armor which have been brought up on the sides both of theory and of practice.

In a report from Colonel Walter D. McCaw, who has reviewed (June 30, 1918) the latest data at the Service de Sante, the following percentages are given:

  • Shrapnel or shell fragments: 50.66%
  • Grenades: 1.02%
  • Rifle or machine gun bullets: 34.05%
  • Bombs from aeroplanes: .10%
  • Mine explosions: .15%
  • Accidental missiles, undetermined: .14.00%
“Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare” by Bashford Dean

The American Way

“Effort should be continued towards the development of a satisfactory form of personal body armor.” — General Pershing, 1917.

brewster body shield armor
The American Brewster Body Shield circa 1917. Although it was unwieldy and impractical, it would stop high-powered rifle bullets. Image: Library of Congress

In the United States, there was considerable interest in and development of body armor, particularly after America joined the fight in April 1917. Dr. Guy Otis Brewster developed his cumbersome Brewster Body Shield during 1917. The Brewster armor gave the appearance of a Steampunk stormtrooper or an early concept of a spaceman. However, it’s chrome and nickel steel plate could stop a British .303 bullet at relatively close range.

dayfield body shield worn by us soldier in wwi
The British Dayfield Body Shield, which weighed about 18 pounds, is worn here by a U.S. soldier. It is similar in appearance to modern body armor worn by EOD teams. Image: NARA

Dr. Brewster was so confident in his armor that he personally wore it while being filmed as he was shot with an SMLE rifle! Regardless, the massive helmet and breastplate (weighing more than 40 pounds) were never adopted.

hale and kilburn body armor
Detail views of the Hale & Kilburn body armor — it weighed about 9 pounds and was proof against pistol ammunition. Image: NARA

Several examples of “light armor” were produced in the United States, particularly from the summer of 1918 onward. Photographs of the Hale & Kilburn manufacturing facility in Philadelphia show a considerable amount of body armor in production in later 1918.

soldier wearing hale and kilburn body armor
A U.S. soldier demonstrates the wear of Hale & Kilburn body armor. The armor is not believed to have ever made it into Europe before the war ended.

This armor did not reach U.S. troops before the Armistice in November, and it seems unlikely that it was ever shipped to France. Few examples still exist, and it is a bit of a mystery about whatever happened to all that body armor.

American experiments with “ballistic” shaped helmets, along with flexible protection for soldiers’ shoulders, arms, and hands all showed promise, but ultimately the forward-thinking designs did not see combat in 1918.

helmet by hale and kilburn
A few of the Hale & Kilburn trench helmets (Helmet No. 5) — shown above — made it to France for testing. Image: NARA

Like the Allied “Grand Offensive” of 1919, the body armor wasn’t needed. Within a year or so after World War I, the concept was abandoned — at least until World War II came along.

German Trench Armor: Sappenpanzer

The German Army first issued its body armor in 1916 — the Germans called it “Sappenpanzer”, or trench armor. The armor plate weighed 24 pounds and included an armored brow plate that connected to the German trench helmet.

german sentry wearing wwi trench armor
Shown above is a German sentry guarding a bunker attached to the trenches in 1918. He is protected by body armor and the additional plate on the front of his helmet. Image: NARA

Normally, the Germans issued body armor to sentries, machine gunners, and occasionally snipers operating from prepared positions in the trenches. German armor offered sure protection against shrapnel and uncertain defense against rifle and machine gun fire.

german sappenpanzer armor
German sentries with body armor were seen during April 1918. The man in the foreground has an MG 08-15 LMG, and the rifleman in the background wears the additional plate on his “coal scuttle” helmet. Image: NARA

U.S. ballistic tests with German body armor showed the following:

American rifle ammunition at 2,140 foot seconds pierces at 30 yards but is resisted at 60 yards. Service ammunition of full velocity (2,780 foot seconds) shatters at 60 yards, is resisted at 300 yards.

The Germans saw possibilities with their body armor but were not overly enthusiastic. An officer’s comments outline their attitude in this translated report:

The armour 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.

doughboys with captured german body armor wwi
Allied troops enjoy a sizable haul of German body armor after a battle in 1918. Image: NARA

Another report outlines the difficulties brought on by the armor’s weight:

Infantry armour has, on the whole, proved serviceable for sentries in position warfare. Universal complaints have been received that the armour makes it difficult to handle the rifle and is a considerable handicap to bombers. “On the other hand, it is admitted that the armour is very useful, especially as a protection to the back, for individuals (listening posts, advanced posts during a heavy bombardment) and has prevented casualties. “It should not be used for operations which entail crossing obstacles by climbing, jumping, or crawling, especially as it makes it difficult to carry ammunition. When the enemy attacks, the armour has to be taken off, as it decreases the mobility of the soldier on account of its weight and stiffness.

us soldier wears captured german body armor in wwi
A U.S. Doughboy wears captured German body armor in his defensive position. A German “sniper shield” armor plate is at the top of the parapet and an M1915 Chauchat automatic rifle is seen at the right. Image: NARA

Photos show that in the spring offensive of 1918, some German assault units wore body armor in the attack, but all evidence points to the fact that the weighty plates limited the Stosstruppen’s mobility, undoing any protection the armor offered. Allied troops treated the German armor as a curiosity, and multiple photos show that they treated it as a prize souvenir with some utility.

Conclusion

While body armor might be extremely common today, the foundations for today’s innovations were being laid in the trenches of World War I. Necessity truly may be the mother of invention.

british tank britannia
Ultimately, the armored vehicle, eventually known as the “tank”, would become the most useful armor available to the soldiers of WWI. Image: NARA

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Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein is a historian. While that might sound mind-numbingly awful to some, he enjoys it. His deep dives into historical research keep him (mostly) out of trouble and, yet, too often away from the rifle range. Tom is the author of more than 30 books on military history and weapons systems. He regularly contributes articles to national magazines and websites on military history and firearms topics, and historical photos from his collection are used by publishers around the world. In those times that he is cornered in a corporate environment, he will talk about marketing until he is released. Tom is married to a very patient woman, and they live on America’s North Coast, near Lake Ontario. His regular misadventures with Wally, his young Tibetan Mastiff, remind him that life must be enjoyed full-bore, at least until you are ready for a nap.

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