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

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known as the creator of the great detective Sherlock Holmes. However, Conan Doyle also used his fame to campaign on behalf of British soldiers during the First World War.

Conan Doyle’s conversations with the War Office, in which he suggests equipping the troops with better shields, helmets and body armour, form the subject of this blog series.

In this final post of the series – written by Philip Abbot, Archives and Records Manager at Royal Armouries – we learn more about the response from the British Army and the trials of shields and body armour commisioned by David Lloyd-George.

Part four: The Official Response

When Conan Doyle sent his ideas on body armour and shields to the Inventions Branch at the War Office, the responsibility for the production and supply of munitions was passing from the War Office to the Ministry of Munitions. Papers in the Parliamentary Archives show that the new Minister, David Lloyd-George, took an interest in Conan Doyle’s campaign from the outset.

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The Right Hon David Lloyd-George. Image source: ‘Fighting Starvation in Belgium, 1918’ available on archive.org

The Ministry of Munitions reports on the use and effect of shields and body armour

Between August and November 1916, Lloyd-George asked Ernest Moir at the Munitions Inventions Department to report on the potential use and effectiveness of shields and body armour.

Moir concluded that it was doubtful if shields could be made within a practicable weight and that there would be difficulties manoeuvring them over uneven ground, through barbed wire, or over other obstructions [1, 2]. Similarly, the armours being sold by the Army and Navy Stores not only failed to provide protection, but also posed further risk of injuries being caused by the deformation of the bullet and by pieces of the armour being driven into the body [3].

In January 1916, Lloyd-George instructed Moir’s successor, Colonel Henry Edward Fane Goold Adams, to set up a sub-committee to look into the problem, stating that he was:

“very anxious in the prospects of securing an adequate body-shield which would at any rate reduce by a material percentage the casualties from rifles, machine guns and shells.” [4]

Sir Douglas Haig intervenes and testing begins

However, perhaps the most significant intervention came from Sir Douglas Haig, who had become Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in the Field on 10 December 1915. Haig was doubtful that a bullet-proof body armour could be developed, but asked the War Office to supply a portable shield that would resist enemy bullets at close range, and a light body shield that would provide men taking part in trench warfare protection against shell splinters and grenade fragments. [5].

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Sir Douglas Haig, Commander in Chief of the British Army in the Field from 1915–1918

The personal intervention of the Minister of Munitions, combined with the Commander-in-Chief’s request, produced a flurry of activity. The Munitions Inventions Department conducted tests on the various materials to see which ones offered the best protection. These concluded that 18-gauge Firth, Whitworth, Hadfield or high quality steel should be used to make up a light body shield, that it should be covered in khaki cloth, and that it should be made in plates jointed on the same principle as the Dayfield Body Shield. Further tests were then made, which indicated that Hadfield’s water-cooled (H.W.C.) manganese steel provided the best protection

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Four shrapnel proof body shields were then produced for extended grenade-throwing tests on 23 February, which concluded that the extra protection offered by the two heaviest outweighed the slight drawback caused by their extra weight. Several changes were suggested which reduced the weight by about 2 pounds, and an order was placed for 5,000 of each type on 25 February 1916 for field trials in France along with 1,000 Dayfield Body Shields (Heavy Model).

Shields and body armour are issued to troops

By the time that Conan Doyle wrote to Lloyd George, now Secretary of State for War, in July 1916 the field trials had been completed. The Dayfields were rejected as being too heavy and cumbersome, but Haig asked for 400 modified sets of the MID body shields to be issued to every Division in France and Flanders.

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The MID body shields were used with some success by bombers, patrols and sentries, but in the event they proved too heavy and awkward to be used in major assaults, and in May 1917 Haig asked for 200 sets of a lighter design of body armour to be issued to every Division. This was the Experimental Ordnance Board (EOB) body armour, and appears to have been a development of the Type C armour previously tested. It consisted of front, back and abdomen plates, was made of 18-gauge manganese steel, padded and covered in tan coloured canvas. It weighed 9 ½ pounds, was secured with leather straps and buckles, and offered the wearer protection against pistol bullets, shrapnel and grenade fragments.

Almost 20,000 sets of body armour had been delivered by August 1918 when the deadlock on the Western Front was finally broken. Research continued right up to the end of the war, as did the evaluation of both commercially available body armour and ideas received from members of the public and serving officers.

Progress on the development of a portable or mobile shield was less spectacular. Various designs for mobile shields were examined to protect between 5 and 15 men, but these were invariably too heavy and too difficult to manoeuvre, even with a large crew. A mobile shield was tested in 1917, which was fitted with rifle slits to enable the crew of five to engage enemy targets, and the following year both the British and French used a large mobile shield akin to a three-sided metal box on wheels with a platform on which a soldier could lie with only his legs exposed. However, no satisfactory design was ever produced, and the development of the tank made such shields irrelevant.


Read more on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s First World War campaign in the following earlier posts:


References

1: Parliamentary archives, LG/D/10/4/1 Preliminary report on steel bullet-proof shields for use at the front to protect infantry and bombing parties, August 13, 1915;
2: Parliamentary archives, LG/D/10/4/2 Further report on steel bullet-proof shields for use at the front to protect infantry and bombing parties, August 19, 1915
3: Parliamentary archives, LG/D/10/3/25/1, Report on armour, November 16, 1915;
ditto, Report on armour, appended note, November 19, 1915
4: Parliamentary archives, LG/D/3/2/35, Memo, January 12, 1916
5: National Archives, MUN 4/2749, Letter to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, December 26, 1915