My research efforts have taken me down the sewers of Paris, onto the battlefield at Edgehill, and even through the snows of the Andes on horseback. Sometimes, though, it’s a lot easier than that. My son has, for the past nine years, served as an officer in the Royal Logistic Corps of the British Army. His first-hand experience of trying to stay awake on sentry and how long it takes to dig a trench have filtered into the life of James Burke and his colleagues. These days, however, you are more likely to find him in a lab coat than in the mud as his current work sees him providing technical advice on ammunition and equipment. In between answering questions from the Army and police he occasionally has time to discuss the colour of gunpowder smoke or the explosive power of a 19th century mill (wait for the next Burke book). Here he is to talk about his personal pet subject of military history: body armour.
Body armour is an often overlooked piece of equipment. It isn’t as sexy as guns so tends not to get much screen time in Hollywood. Besides, in a movie it’s easier to just have your baddies miss than protect your heroes with ceramic plates that would cover up their toned abs. The exception is found in history. When we watch films set in the days of yore you can’t have a shot without a knight in his armour astride a noble steed.
|Renactors from the British 95th Rifles|
Cut forward 200 years again and the fashion has swung the other way. Today’s soldiers go to war almost as armoured up as their medieval counterparts.
|US solider, Iraq 2008|
Why the change? Why the change back? The answer lies largely with one man.
The story of defence technology is a perpetual cycle of better weapons leading to better armour, leading to better weapons. In the 1300s the longbow was the guided missile of its day. The bleeding edge of military technology, her devastating bodkin arrows were cutting down armies in a similar way to the machine guns of the First World War. However, by the 16th century, the longbow was already being phased out in favour of firearms. The thin plate of Richard of York just couldn’t stand up to a bullet and armour was becoming ever thicker, heavier and all encompassing. Pretty soon knights were being lifted onto horses by winches, but the gunpowder and firearms development kept pace. By 1530 arquebuses so large and powerful they resembled portable cannon, complete with support stands, were in use in Spain and Italy. The days of the heavy knight were over.
By the time of the English Civil War, the use of armour was limited. With the demise of individually commissioned knightly armour came the opportunity to dress your armies in uniforms. In England, the Civil War marked the beginning of the idea of uniformed armies. At the start of the war, the infantry on both sides wore their civilian clothing but gradually the idea of issue clothing took hold. The Parliamentarian forces were more likely to wear some sort of uniform, as the Parliamentarians had more financial resources (they controlled London with its economic power) and were thus better positioned to provide clothing to their troops. An early order from Parliament said “that all soldiers should have delivered unto them at their first marching coats, shoes, shirts and caps, in all to the value of seventeen shillings for every man”. The issue of armour, though, was limited. Helmets, backplates and breastplates were issued to pikemen, though often only the front ranks would be armoured, the rest relying on thick leather or cotton clothing to provide them with some sort of protection. Musketeers usually didn't wear armour at all.
|Civil War soldiers at Edgehill (Thanks to the Sealed Knot)|
As an aside, it's worth noting that the clothing here was "uniform" in the sense that standard clothing was issued. Uniforms were not used to distinguish between opposing armies. People often wore coloured sashes to indicate which side they were on. Given the quality of dye technology at the time, the colours were often not that clear and there were frequent instances of clashes between different units on the same side or, indeed, of people failing to attack the enemy because they were unaware of which side they were on.
Cavalry was a different matter. There was no central supply of uniform to the cavalry by either side. The dress of cavalry troops was left to the commanders and often reflected the personal vanity of the senior officers. (This remained this case with some units even in the Napoleonic Wars.) The King's Lifeguard of Horse became known as "The Troop of Show” because of the fineness of their uniform. Most cavalrymen wore leather coats known as "buff coats" which were considerably more expensive than the clothing issued to the Foot. The average cost of a trooper’s buff coat was between twenty-five and thirty shillings with officers coats costing considerably more. Back and breastplates were supposed to be worn over the coat (although, in practice, they often weren't). The armour and thick leather did offer practical protection, but the clothing worn by cavalry officers was at least as much about display as functionality.
|Today’s Household Cavalry wear armour as a nod to their past. Photo by Marco Verch|
By the time of Waterloo the British had almost completely done away with metalwork on their uniforms. The French Carabinier-à-Cheval still wore breastplates (cuirasses) and after the battle British intelligence agents were sent to investigate the dead to see how they had performed. The results were not good.
|Cuirass holed by a cannonball at Waterloo|
Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly was born in Australia in 1854. In October 1878 he, his brother and two friends killed a sergeant and two police constables. The “Stringyback murders” caused the Kelly gang to become outlaws: a parliamentary act authorised police or private citizens to kill them without trial. However, Ned and his gang evaded capture and embarked on a series of ever more daring bank robberies. By the time the Act lapsed in 1880 the reward for the Kelly gang was £8,000.
In June of 1880 the police tracked and surrounded Kelly and his gang to a hotel in Glenrowan. A shootout ensued that lasted most of the night and, as day broke, Kelly made his break. A large man, he seemed to tower over the police in his knee length great coat and head obscured in the morning mist. The police would, according to fokelore, later describe Kelly as a demon or the devil as he moved coolly amongst the bullets, seemingly unharmed by the firepower raining down on him. Eventually he was shot in the leg by police sergeant Steel and the truth came out.
As their robberies had become more dangerous, Kelly and his gang had commissioned a blacksmith to make them suits of armour out of ploughs. Each weighed around 40 kg and covered the head, shoulders and thighs. Worn under their greatcoats it wasn’t immediately visible to the police, who had dismissed intelligence reports of the Kelly gang’s imperviousness to bullets as tall tales. However, with Kelly down and a high profile trial and hanging to follow, the truth was plain to see and the press ran with the story everywhere.
|Kelly’s armour is still on display in Victoria, complete with 18 bullet strikes|
The Germans favoured a 'lobster' armour that was fairly effective but heavy and cumbersome. (It tended to be reserved for machine gun crews who didn't need to move a lot.)
|German WWI “lobster” armour. (Photo by Halibutt)|
As body armour proved itself in battle over and over again, it became increasingly prevalent. Although in 1914 very few soldiers were equipped with any sort of armour, by the end of the war the Brodie helmet would become synonymous with the British Tommy. Body armour was here to stay, all thanks to the notoriety and ingenuity of four bushrangers from Victoria.
A Word from our Sponsor
I love writing these blogs – or getting other people to write for me – but the idea is to encourage you to read my books. I've been fairly quiet about this lately because since the summer they have only been available in North America. Come January, though, all three of my books about James Burke and his adventures during the Napoleonic wars will be republished by Endeavour Press. They should be available on pre-order soon after Christmas. I'll be writing a lot more about this between now and then, but if you could promise yourself that you will buy one as a slightly delayed Christmas present, I'd be thrilled. Wonderful as it is to know that so many people read and enjoy this blog, it would be nice if that translated into more sales of the books.