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22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

Body Armour or Shields

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Body Armour or Shields is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The Times on 28 july 1916.

Body Armour or Shields

The Times (28 july 1916)


Sir, — It is a year now since you were good enough to allow me to express some views about body armour in your columns. Since then, so far as I know, nothing has been done, but now we have got so far that the Minister of War admits that something of the kind may some day come along. To me it seems the most important question of any, and I earnestly hope that you will use your influence to keep it before the notice of the authorities.

Upon July 1 several of our divisions were stopped by machine-gun fire. Their losses were exceedingly heavy, but hardly any of them were from high explosives. The distance to traverse was only about 250 yards. The problem, therefore, is to render a body of men reasonably immune to bullets fired at that range. The German first-line trenches were thinly held, so that once across the open our infantry would have had no difficulty whatever.

Now, Sir, I venture to say that if three intelligent metal-workers were put together in consultation they would in a few days produce a shield which would take the greater part of those men safely across. We have definite facts to go upon. A shield of steel of 7/16 of an inch will stop a point-blank bullet. Far more will it stop one which strikes it obliquely. Suppose such a shield fashioned like that of a Roman soldier, 2ft. broad and 3ft. deep. Admittedly it is heavy — well over 30lb. in weight. What then ? The man has not far to go, and he has the whole day before him. A mile in a day is good progress as modern battles go. What does it matter, then, if he carries a heavy shield to cover him ?

Suppose that the first line of stormers carried such shields. Their only other armament, besides their helmets, should be a bag of bombs. With these they clear up the machine-guns. The second wave of attack with rifles, and possibly without shields, then comes along, occupies and cleans up the trench, while the heavily armed infantry, after a rest, advance upon the next one. Men would, of course, be hit about the legs and arms, and high explosives would claim their victims, but I venture to say that we should not again see British divisions held up by machine-guns and shrapnel. Why can it not be tried at once ? Nothing elaborate is needed. Only so many sheets of steel cut to size and furnished with a double thong for arm-grip. Shields are evidently better than body armour, since they can be turned in any direction, or form a screen for a sniper or for a wounded man.

The present private contrivances seem inadequate, and I can well understand that those who could afford to buy them would shrink from using a protection which their comrades did not possess. Yet I have seen letters in which men have declared that they owed their lives to these primitive shields. Let the experiment be made of arming a whole battalion with proper ones — and, above all, let it be done at once. Then at last the attack will be on a level with the defence.

Yours faithfully,

Windlesham, Crowborough, Sussex, July 25.