Why the Middle Ages Could Have Saved Lives in WWI

Back when I taught my history of World War I course on campus instead of gallivanting around the Western Front itself, I made extensive use of clips from The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, a documentary miniseries from PBS and the BBC. (It came out in 1996, but the website is still up and pretty functional.) One of my students’ favorite clips (from the second episode, I think) showed a variety of ingenious, but evidently impractical, inventions developed during the war to help break the stalemate and free armies from their trenches.

Students never fail to laugh when they see the footage of one British test: soldiers firing rifles at another soldier wearing a massive suit of armor. He survives without a scratch, but we all chuckle, knowing how ridiculous it was to think that infantry in WWI would go into combat encased in iron or steel, as if it were the 13th and not the 20th century.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have laughed, says U.S. Naval War College professor Michael Vlahos, in a recent piece on body armor in 1914-18 for The Atlantic. He writes of Arms and Armor Collection at New York’s Metropolitan Museum and its curator, Bashford Dean, who worked with the U.S. Army in 1917-18 to develop a body armor program:

German body armor, 1917
British soldier trying on German body armor captured at Ypres in 1917 – Imperial War Museum

…the early 1900s’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Arms and Armor Collection was a magicalplace. 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.

A late 15th century sallet, model for the German Stahlhelm introduced in 1916 – Wikimedia

Vlahos points to a variety of evidence in support of this theory: that all armies did use one kind of medieval armor, the helmet (the German Stahlhelm was modeled on the late medieval sallet), using Industrial Age alloys that could stop even a point-blank shot with a thickness of only 0.036 inches; that at least 70% of casualties resulted from shell fragments that did horrible things to human flesh but flew through the air only a third as fast as rifle and machine gun bullets; that even protecting the torso alone would drastically reduce casualties, by up to 60% found American bomber crews wearing flak jackets in the Second World War.

So why — with the exceptions of the Germans (see above) — didn’t the armies of WWI learn from the Middle Ages? Why did “armored” refer to tanks and cars (search for “armoured” in the IWM’s First World War collection, and you’ll see a lot of vehicles), and not ground soldiers? Vlahos proposes three “impediments” to thinking that might have saved lives, the last of which is most provocative:

…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….

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.

Read the full piece here.

One thought on “Why the Middle Ages Could Have Saved Lives in WWI

  1. If I remember correctly, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle designed body armor for use by soldiers in World War I, but his designs were never implemented. He also wrote a multi-volume history of the war.

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