Reply To: Lack of essential protective equipment for our fighting forces in World War One

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#10649
Frank Scott
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    The history of naval protective gear has not been covered in detail, so far as I know.

    However, it is important to compare like with like. Thus for steel helmets the main issue for the army was protecting the heads of men in the trenches against shrapnel bursts, which was not an issue at sea. Hence the wide ‘soup plate’ design of the British helmet. The French were first, but their helmet had little or no capability against bullets, unlike the British or German helmets, which were quite good in that respect. Clearly the priority for issue was to soldiers, and for the British that began in late 1915 (the Germans were last), though widespread issue obviously took time and their first use in a designated battle came in spring 1916. I expect that the navy came well down the priority list (except for the Royal Naval Division). Incidentally, Jack Cornwell would not have benefitted from a helmet, as his mortal injuries were to the chest area.

    As to anti-flash gear, it is interesting that the US Navy did not provide any until very recently indeed (@1990s). Not sure when the RN or the German Navy issued this gear, but it was quite early in the First World War. I will try to find out more.

    I believe that Fearnought suits for fire-fighting teams came in quite early for the RN, as they were developed from cold weather clothing. The great Admiral Sir Percy Scott (no relation!) was responsible for the main ‘smoke helmet’ design, and that came out well before the war.

    While it is easy to criticise, it should also be understood that war always brings new lessons. For gunfire the main threat for ships was perceived to be explosive, and flash burns were vastly underestimated, probably because trials and technology were so limited (no high-speed cameras etc. to record the flash, and of course no humans ‘guinea pigs’). Not sure why the British army under-estimated the danger of shrapnel, because it had been used to great effect as early as the Napoleonic War (admittedly by the British rather than against them).