Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s campaign for better body armour on the Western Front, part two. (See previous post here.)

Written by Philip Abbott, Archives and Records Manager at the Royal Armouries.

DOY 1-7 Walker 1
Credit: Royal Armouries, DOY 1-7 Walker 1.

David Lloyd George noted in his wartime memoirs that when he became Minister of Munitions that he was deluged with letters from “cranks and lunatics” who had some new invention to propose. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s own letters to The Times and The Observer resulted in a number of responses from private individuals who shared his concerns, many of whom had their own ideas on saving the lives of British soldiers.

George Seaborne, a former colliery owner from Hengoed in Glamorganshire, wrote to him recalling how during the South African War he had suggested to the War Office that British troops fashion shields made from old boilers in the gold mines to protect themselves from Boer rifle fire. He also observed how the Japanese had used shields with some success during the Russo-Japanese War, and wondered whether photographs showing their use in the attack on Port Arthur might help Conan Doyle in his endeavours.(See below).

DOY 1-16 Seaborne
Credit: Royal Armouries, DOY 1-16 Seaborne.

Miles Walker, Professor of Electrical Engineering at Manchester University, brought to Conan Doyle’s attention his idea for a large portable shield (see first image above and below), which he had tested the previous year with the aid of the Royal Engineers at Buxton, and then demonstrated in the presence of Major Richard Oakes, the Inspector of Iron Structures at the Department of Fortifications and Works with the help of the 90th Brigade at Manchester. Walker had already tried to persuade the Ministry of Munitions to conduct trials of his shield without success, and when in frustration he wrote to The Times on the subject his letter was “struck out by the censor” because it revealed information on experiments with military equipment. He hoped for better success by appealing to a number of MPs in the hope that they would bring pressure to bear on the Government to look into his ideas.

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Credit: Royal Armouries, DOY 1-7 Walker 2.

Conan Doyle had discovered that at least one design for a large mobile shield developed by Lieutenant Cyril Aldin Smith of the Royal Naval Armoured Car Service had been tested in France, and Mr. A. Middleton of East Grinstead in Sussex wrote to him with a similar idea. It consisted of two armour plates fixed together at an angle, and mounted on a frame with a single wheel to enable it to be turned in any direction, and “easily trundled over rough ground” (see below).

DOY 1-14 Middleton
Credit: Royal Armouries museum, DOY 1-14 Middleton.

One of the more unusual ideas came from Mr. J. B. Forster, a shipping broker from Sunderland. He suggested that a steel net (presumably made of interlinked metal rings in the same way as medieval mail armour) might be fitted to a lightweight steel frame and attached to the end of a service rifle. The net would be mounted on springs in such a manner that it would give slightly on being struck by a bullet, reducing its velocity and preventing any ricochets from wounding neighbouring troops. It would be fine enough to enable the soldier to see through it, and have a small hole in the centre to allow him to fire his weapon. Forster was evidently no rifleman. One of the features of modern military rifles is a heavy, floating barrel, which increases the accuracy of the weapon by allowing it to vibrate freely and consistently. The floating barrel is able to expand and contract without contacting the stock and interfering with the alignment of the barrel and the sights.

Conan Doyle also received a number of letters following up his suggestions for armour. George Wakeman of Sparkhill in Birmingham wrote enclosing not only a detailed design for armour, consisting of breastplate, backplate, abdomen plate, arm and leg defences, which he described his armour as “simple, light, effective & cheap” (see first image below), but also a projectile for destroying barbed wire entanglements (second image below). Wakeman admitted that his suggestions, “did not take root in the official mind”, but noted that a sergeant in the trenches had “heartily approved” of his ideas for armour, and an experienced gunner had commented favourably on his suggestions for a wire entanglement destroyer.

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Wakeman’s concepts for steel armour sent to Conan Doyle. Credit: Royal Armouries, DOY 1-13A Wakeman 1.
DOY 1-13B Wakeman 2
Credit: Royal Armouries, DOY 1-13B Wakeman 2.

It was not just in Britain where well-meaning ideas to reduce the casualties being suffered on the Western Front were being frustrated. Arthur Rotsaert, a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Belgian Engineers, wrote to Conan Doyle claiming that he had, “made a type of shield giving full and effective protection against the German rifle bullet and shrapnel splinters to the chest and abdomen of the soldiers when they are marching upright and covering them completely when lying flat”. Rotsaert’s armour was made of 7mm thick steel and weighed less than 17 pounds. The Belgian Board of Inventions had spurned his suggestions, declaring that his armour was too heavy, but he remained convinced that the special circumstances of trench warfare made this criticism irrelevant. He argued that they need only be carried during an assault, and if the troops had to march any great distance, they could simply be left behind and picked up by the rear echelons. He offered to send his armour to Conan Doyle, but asked him not to publicise his name or rank in the Belgian Army as this might lead to trouble.

Mademoiselle Marthe Durand of Paris had also read Conan Doyle’s article in The Times, and contacted him regarding the bullet-proof armour she had developed, which had saved the lives of two members of her family, one of whom had been hit in the chest, and the other in near the heart. The armour weighed only three kilograms (six pounds ten ounces), but although she had sent samples to the French Army, she had not yet received a reply. She offered to send Conan Doyle one of her armours to see if he could persuade the British Army to try it out.

Many of Conan Doyle’s correspondents recognised the problem of the weight of bullet proof armour, and looked for alternative solutions to the use of steel. Ms Janet Peck, who lived in fashionable Mayfair in London, another writer appalled by “the sickening obstinacy with which every obvious necessity is met in the War Office” had an interesting idea. She sent Conan Doyle a sample of vulcanite, a hardened rubber made by the vulcanisation of natural rubber with sulphur, which she had come across during her investigations into the use of waterproof paper to make smocks for Indian and Canadian troops before they were issued with great coats. She thought that, “a shield could be made of this composition still hardened by greater pressure”.

Conan Doyle himself investigated the use of different materials in association with the inventor, industrialist and entrepreneur, Herbert Frood. His company, Ferodo, based in Chapel en le Frith in Derbyshire, specialised in the design and manufacture of friction products, and made brake linings for armoured cars, motor vehicles and tanks during the war. A surviving minute book in the Derbyshire Record Office reveals that on the 9 August he produced a bullet proof fabric for Conan Doyle, that was made of asbestos die pressed from 1/4 to 3/16 of an inch, and boiled in black wax with a 20% carnauba palm wax content (https://recordoffice.wordpress.com/tag/ferodo/).

Conan Doyle also received letters from a number of private companies who were already producing armour for private purchase… find out more about this in part three of our series.