Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s campaign for better armour on the Western Front: Part three

 

Part Three: Private Companies

Written by Philip Abbot  Archives and Records Manager for the Royal Armouries in Leeds.

At least eighteen designs for armour using steel plate, mail and even textiles were manufactured commercially in Britain during the First Word War, and no less than forty patents for helmets and armour were taken out in Britain between 1914 and 1918. It comes as no surprise therefore to learn that Conan Doyle also received letters from a number of private companies who were already producing armour for private purchase.

John Pullman, the retired owner of R. and J. Pullman Limited, leather-dressers of London, Godalming and Woodstock, sent Conan Doyle an improved version of his A1 Shield, which was on sale for 25 shillings at the Army and Navy Stores, Harrods and Selfridges.  Pullman’s shield was made of steel, “Government tested and found proof against shrapnel bullets at 700 feet per second velocity, and enemy service revolver at point-blank, and against bayonet or lance”, and weighed just less than 3 pounds. It provided protection to the chest and abdomen, and consisted of four overlapping steel plates, which were attached to one another by means of canvas webbing, and secured by adjustable straps at the neck and the waist. Each individual plate measured 12 inches by 5 inches, was curved to fit the contours of the body, and riveted to a stout canvas backing. When not being worn it folded up neatly into a canvas or leather case, which could be carried over the shoulder in the same manner as a haversack.

Credit: Royal Armouries. DOY 1-1A Pullman 1 and DOY1-1B Pullman 2.

Conan Doyle also received an example of the Dayfield Body Shield, which was made by the Whitfield Manufacturing Company. The Dayfield was probably the most popular of all of the privately manufactured body armours, and was widely advertised in newspapers and magazines as “an invaluable gift to send to your soldier father, brother, husband, son or friend”, and claimed to be proof against bayonet, sword, lance, spent bullets, shrapnel, shell splinters and grenade fragments.

Dayfield Body Shield Heavy Model 1916
Credit: Royal Armouries. Dayfield Body Shield, Heavy Model, 1916.

Its advertisements and promotional literature certainly carried an impressive number of unsolicited testimonials. One Lieutenant Colonel recalled:

“When wounded on March 17th I consider that the Dayfield saved me from a very ugly wound in the back or right shoulder. I was going along a front line trench when an officer immediately behind me was killed outright and something hit me hard on the right, below the shoulder, knocking me on my knees. Some splinters from a bullet casing got in above the steel plate, causing small wounds.”

DOY 1-9B Dayfield 3
Credit: ROyal Armouries. DOY 1-9B Dayfield 3.

The original version of the Dayfield Body Shield was fairly simple, and consisted of a breastplate and a backplate, each composed of four steel plates, sewn into a canvas waistcoat with metal bands taped over the unprotected seams, but it was quickly modified so that the front plate was extended up to the shoulders and shaped at the neck. It could be purchased as either a single shield to protect the chest only (weighing 3 pounds) for 21 shillings, or a double shield to protect the front and back (weighing 5 pounds 8 ounces) for 52 shillings and 6 pence.

Credit: Royal Armouries. DOY 1-9A Dayfield 1 and 2.

Roneo Limited drew Conan Doyle’s attention to two designs for body shields that they had produced in association with the Miris Steel Company, which were then being tested in the field by 12th Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Martin Archer Shee, MP. The first was a breastplate shaped to cover the left side of the body, which was more often exposed by an advancing soldier than the front, and provided protection to the heart and abdomen. The second was a large breastplate with shoulder straps and belt, which covered the whole of the chest. Both shields were made of Miris steel, a 1/3 inch (about 7.5mm) thick, which it was claimed would stop a Mauser rifle bullet at 40 yards, and were padded to help absorb the shock of impact.

DOY 1-8B Miris steel
Credit: Royal Armouries. Miris steel.

Conan Doyle was a keen rifleman, and tested the armour and shields he had been sent in his garden at Crowborough with his own service rifle. His younger sons, Denis and Adrian, were forbidden to come close, when their father was engaged in his experiments, but could hear the sounds of bullets being deflected or thudding into their target. He probably included a summary of the results of his experiments in his letter to Lloyd George on 8 August.