BRITISH FIRST WORLD WAR TANKERS FACE MASK
By Richard Henry, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History, 20 May 2020
Figure 1: The Museum’s Anti-Splash Tankers Mask: Acq No 17126. Belonged to Corporal Glegg Moir.
Introduction / development
Tanks development and production in the First World War 1914-1918 was in response to the stalemate that developed on the Western Front. The prototype in the development of the British Mark 1 Tank was constructed in the autumn of 1915 and was demonstrated to the British Army on February 2, 1916. The term Tank was coined after a steel water tank, and supposedly uses in the desert conditions of Mesopotamia. This subterfuge was used to preserve secrecy. The Mark I’s, 8 m long rhomboid shape gave a the caterpillar tracks a large surface area which helped the 30 ton tank cross up to 2,7m wide trenches and easily cross barbed wire obstacles.
First use of the tank
The first use of the British Mk I tank was at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on 15 September 1916. Many tanks broke down but nearly a third succeeded in breaking through the German lines. The tanks initial unreliability was improved with later marks but not corrected completely.
Difficult operating conditions
The hull of the tank was undivided internally. There were eight crew; four men operated either the two 6-pouder (57mm) Quick Firing Hotchkiss guns in the male tank or four .303 in Vickers machine guns in the female version of the tank and the other four crew were to operate the tank.
If the subaltern commander wanted the tank to move left for example, he would bang on the hull with a spanner to get the crews attention as the nose inside the tank was too great for verbal commands. Then he would indicate by hand signal – left. The driver would depress the clutch pedal, the commander then worked a T bar handle which moved the differential and the one of the two gear men at the back of the tank, lifted leavers on the differential to disengage the left side track. The right track would continue to turn and the tank would move to the left. Then the left track would be engaged again and the tank would slowly progress forward at a maximum speed of 6 km/h; the marching speed of attacking infantry. These actions were not easy under normal conditions but under the stress of combat with the noise, cordite smoke fumes from the guns, with the tank lurching across rough ground, it was nigh impossible. The crews were thrown around inside the hull, bumping their heads and or bodies against the steel structure. This sometimes led to a led to a man knocking himself unconscious in action. To combat this, tank crews were issued with leather helmets to protect their heads. These leather helmets had a similar shape to the German Pickelhaube helmet. The crews were sometimes mistaken for Germans and shot at by their own forces.
The crew shared the same interior space as the Daimler-Knight 6-cylinder sleeve-valve 16-litre petrol engine. This made the environment inside the tank was extremely unpleasant. After the engine has run for about half an hour, the exhaust, vented out to the roof of the tank, became red hot. This heated the inside of the tank up to 50 ⁰ Centigrade. The engine manifold, now also extremely hot, separated slightly from the engine which allowed carbon monoxide gasses to enter the inside of the tank. The only fresh air into the tank was from the driver’s and commander’s hatches which could also be closed under combat. Crew members were often unaware of the carbon monoxide poisoning until they eventually stopped and got fresh air which caused the crew member to start vomiting.
The standard cartridge of the Germans in the First World War was the 1903 pattern 7.92 x 57 mm Mauser ball round with a pointed (Spitzgeschoß) 9.9 gram (153 grains) bullet. The bullet had a lead core encased in a cupronickel jacket and had a muzzle velocity of velocity 878 metres per second.
When a British tank approached the German trenches, the tank came under machine gun and rifle fire. The noise of the bullets striking the outside of the tank was very loud. On impact with the tank armour, the lead core of the bullet melted and this molten lead found its way through the smallest gaps between the riveted plates of the tank armour. This was called bullet splash. Bullet splash also entered the tank via the numerous pistol ports and vision hatches. There is a report of an Mk IV British tank returning to the British lines after the Battle of Cambrai on 20 November 1917, after being hit so many times by machine gun and rifle file, that the bullet splash had painted the tank silver. Bullet splash was not deadly but could pepper the crew’s face with small lead particle which could penetrate the skin and cause blindness if hit in the eyes. Sometimes the impact of the bullet on the exterior of the armour might cause a piece of the armour on the inside of the tank to dislodge and also cause fine pieces of steel to strike the crew. This was more common on the earlier marks of tanks which had thinner more brittle armour plate. The armour on the early tanks could stop small arms fire and fragments from high-explosive artillery shells. By June 1917 the Germans were using the K bullet – an armour piercing bullet with a steel core which was able to penetrate up to 13mm of armour at 100. This was just sufficient to penetrate the latest Mk IV British tank. A larger Mauser Model 1918, 13mm anti-tank rifle known as T Gewehr which could penetrate up 26 mm of armour at 100 m and 18 mm of armour at 500 m – enough to easily penetrate the armour on a British Mk IV tank was used from 191. All tanks were vulnerable to a direct hit from artillery and mortar shells.
The iconic anti-splash mask
At the end of 1916, after the battle Flers, anti-bullet splash masks were issued to tank crews to protect their eyes and throat. The Imperial War Museum example has the letters WS & Co (possibly William Suckling of Birmingham) printed on the cloth ties. They were made of light metal, covered in brown leather. The eye pieces had five horizontal slits cut into the metal as vision ports. A chain-mail skirt was attached by rings to lugs on the steel plate, and hung from the mask below the cheeks and nose to protect the throat area.
The steel portion of the Museum’s mask and possibly the whole mask was made by Burys & Co of Sheffield. See advertisement below. The mask belonged to Corporal Glegg Moir who may have served in the Scottish Highlanders. It is not known if he later served in the fledgling Tank Corps. On his death in 1976, the mask was donated to the Museum on 21 February 1976 by his wife.
Figure 2: Guide to British Industrial History
Figure 3: The Manufacturer’s mark on the Museum anti-splash mask.
The light steel could be bent and formed to fit the individuals face. The inside of the steel was covered in a padded buff coloured chamois leather and the mask was held in place on the face by two cloth ties which were tied at the back of the head. Splatter Masks were extensively used by the British in the battle of Cambrai, 20 November 1917. Neither the helmet nor the mask were welcomed by the crews as wearing them was uncomfortable and the mask also made it very difficult to see inside the already hot, smoky, noisy interior. Many of these splash masks were saved by the crews as a symbol of having been an elite tank crewman in WW1.
Figure 4: The rear of the Museum mask showing the padded chamois leather.
When tanks were first used in combat the authorities did not foresee that bullet splash could blind the tank crews. As a quick stopgap, these masks were quickly manufactured to protect the eyes of tank crewmen from bullet splash but were not liked.
- Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History from: The Stock Exchange Year Book 1908
Article Verified by
S R Mackenzie