GrogHeads History: WWI Tankers’ Gear

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Lloyd delves into the historical archives to dig out an interesting bit of TANKSgiving history.

Lloyd Sabin, 28 November 2014

I struggled for a while this year to come up with something for TANKSgiving. In years’ passed I have done bits on rare WWI armored vehicles, early tanks…you know, the usual awesome stuff. This year for some reason I could not come up with an appropriate topic. Until I found the below picture during some online research.



Look at that thing. First, for clarification, it’s a World War I ‘tankers mask’ currently housed at the Great War Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. Most likely, it’s British. Looking at it in slightly more detail, we can see that the job of tanker in the First World War was pretty damned dangerous. The mesh around the mouth and lower nose was intended primarily to keep shrapnel away from the tanker’s face. The upper part, with the slits and the plate armor, was also intended to keep shrapnel, hot gas and fire away from the most sensitive parts of a person’s face…the eyes.

It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the tank drivers at Cambrai wearing the above mask or something similar in 1916 during the tank’s first combat deployment. So not only was there the usual terror when facing combat – there was also the constant threat of getting maimed or worse inside your own tank, most likely by its own parts, just as much (or even more) a result of mechanical breakdowns than by an attack. Think about that for a minute…your own vehicle was just as much a danger to you as to any enemy you were going to face.

The only modern equivalent I can think of (outside of modern war, which still maims and wounds every day) sitting in my comfortable study in front of my PC, is if my Subaru threatened to blow up every day while I was commuting to work at 70 mph and I needed a steel suit of armor complete with a mask to protect myself. Before I even got to work. Needless to say, the above picture is not only fascinating in its own right, it is really interesting because of the danger it implies.

Maybe 100 years from now some writer for an automobile website will be writing the same thing about crumple zones and airbags. “Look how dangerous driving was 100 years ago…people needed steel cages built into their cars to absorb impact and giant balloons that instantly inflated to protect their tender parts! Incredible!”

Below is the same (or a very similar) mask on an actual human head, strapped over a real face.


Again, it’s a step forward in sheer fascination and terror to see the mask as it was intended to be worn…it makes it feel more real for some reason. The mask is no longer a static object, it has a human element now with a living, breathing head underneath it. Can you imagine reporting for duty in your platoon and being ordered to ‘mask up’ in that thing? I get nervous enough now just making sure my whole family has their seatbelts on when we take a drive somewhere.

The above images are useful for really bringing home the fact how frightening and fascinating war can be. On this TANKSgiving, it’s appropriate to give thanks that we don’t have to wear such draconian gear in our day to day work anymore..for the most part. If you have to gear up similarly in this day and age, I would like to know what you do for a living, and my hat’s off to you.

It should also give us pause to thank those brave British tankers who had no problem strapping on that face armor back in 1916 and quickly, boldly, went to work against the German lines. More likely than not, many of them would not return home…as seen in the below picture of a destroyed British tank (Mark I or 2, I think) at the Battle of Cambrai.


Damn…we really have it good in 2014, don’t we? Before lapsing into a food coma strengthened by some wine and a few beers, take a second to think of how good we have it, remember those who do not have it so good, and give thanks.

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