Soldier wearing a World War I chainmail Splatter Mask

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Color photograph of a French soldier wearing a WWI tank chainmail splatter mask
Colorized Photograph of A French tank gunner wearing a splatter mask during WWI, 1918.
Colorization by: Richard White

Warfare brings out many inventions and many more problems as a result. With the usage of tanks in World War I, people had to be trained to use them, avoid them, and survive them. Even the people within the tanks were under threat from the very machine they used against others.

Splatter masks were designed to protect the face of anyone looking through the viewports of the tank to guard against shrapnel, which was typically the tank driver. The metal eye covers had small horizontal slits in them to reduce the likelihood of eye damage while allowing the wearer to see. Though the mask was only leather, chainmail was added as a skirt to protect the mouth and chin. Various styles were worn, but the above picture is a good example of a British splatter mask. They would be fastened with a strap. Helmets would have to be worn with the splatter mask as the forehead and top of the head would be exposed.

black and white photograph of a french tank gunner during world war i wearing a chainmail splatter mask
Original photograph of a soldier wearing the Splatter mask during the First World War, 1918.
Credit: RareHistoricalPhotos

One of the mask’s primary uses was to solve the problem of spalling – when the tank’s armor was hit, shockwaves traveled through the armor and broke the metal on the inside. Spall was dangerous to the tank crew and equipment. The thinner the armor of the tank, the more likely spalling would happen. Fragments of lead paint could also be blocked by the splatter mask when a tank was under fire. If a splatter mask did not function properly, the tank crew would be injured by shrapnel in the most vulnerable place of the body. Any time the tank was hit with enemy projectiles there was danger of spalling or other damage to the vehicle, endangering the crew.

This type of mask was introduced in early 1917. Very few survived World War I and those intact are now valuable among collectors. The Battle of Cambrai in WWI was one of the earliest instances of mobilizing tanks; an estimated 378 combat tanks were used and 179 were lost. They were noted to have been particularly effective in passing through barbed wire defenses.

Chainmail splatter mask on display at a museum.
Photograph of a surviving World War I splatter mask on display at a museum.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Nowadays, tank drivers typically wear goggles to protect their eyes from particles and helmets. The danger of spalling has been drastically reduced by thicker armor and a better understanding of risks to the tank crew. The first year tanks were used offensively was just a year before splatter masks were invented, no doubt due to the weaknesses of the first tank variants.

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