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How Men in Armour Made a Comeback During World War 1

The adoption of gunpowder made the knight in armour obsolete. Body armor disappeared from the battlefields of Europe for several centuries as countries adopted new tactics based on massed firepower.

However the conditions of World War 1, made war planners take a second look at body armor as a way of protecting infantry attacking entrenched enemy positions. In theory, if a man was sufficiently well armored, he could reach the enemy positions even in the absence of any ground cover and then engage the enemy at close quarters. This concept was especially appealing before the invention of the tank, when the only way to attack the enemy trenches was to rush them.

armoured soldier - Arditi
An armoured Italian soldier poses at the door to his dugout. He is wearing metal plates over his chest and soldiers, held in place by straps. Instead of a rifle, the soldier is carrying a bladed lance, which makes him look more like a medieval knight than a WW1 soldier.

During world war 1, all of the major combatants experimented with body armor of various sorts. Metal helmets were used by Germany and the Allies. And both sides experimented with full body armor in an effort to give their troops some protection against bullets and shrapnel, essentially turning the soldier into a walking tank, or perhaps more like a throwback to a medieval knight in armor.

Italy made the most extensive use of armored soldiers, especially among its Arditi units. These units, whose name derives from the Italian word for daring, were elite shock troops tasked with breaking through enemy trenches in hand to hand combat. Their primary weapons were knives and hand grenades, although they also made use of flame throwers, machine guns and rifles. Their motto was “We either win or we die.”

The Arditi shock troops were volunteers drawn from elite Italian units and were noted for their bravery and boldness. These shock troops did manage to score some impressive victories in the fight against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though they were never a decisive factor in the war.

Farina Armour - WW1
A young Italian soldier poses in body armour. He is holding a knife in his mouth and grenades around his belt, the preferred weapon of the Arditi. Interestingly the armour leaves a large gap around his neck.

Thse Italian shock troops were often armoured using the Farina Trench Helmet (named after its designer) and also carried metal breast plates and armor around their legs and arms. The heavy steel plating made it difficult to move which meant that even though the soldier had some protection against enemy bullets, he was also an easy target. The soldiers regarded their body armour as a death trap, but it looked cool and the generals were enamored with the idea of sending waves of walking tanks against the enemy.

In many cases these armoured shock troops were armed with lances and other bladed weapons, making them look like they had stumbled through a time portal from the middle ages.

The armoured Arditis have enjoyed a revival in the latest edition of the Battlefield video game franchise, where they are featured as one of the elite Italian units.

Although this Italian experiment with body armour was a failure, it anticipated more effective modern armour such as kevlar vests.