World War One: Biscuits, puttees, helmets and ACME whistles

The tin helmet, the machine gun and the R80 airship are just three examples of how the homefront had a major impact on the way World War One was waged.

Many of the places where they were created are now hard to find, having been replaced by the likes of industrial estates.

In some cases, acts of parliament had to be passed to ensure construction could be completed.

The BBC News website looks at some of the most important ways a global conflict compelled industrial innovation.


Image copyright Narborough History Society

At the beginning of WW1 66 pilots of the Royal Flying Corps flew their aircraft across the channel to support the army. By the end of the war in 1918 the newly formed Royal Air Force had more than 18,000 officers.

Aerodromes sprang up across the county to train pilots - the largest by area, at Narborough in Norfolk, covered more than 900 acres.

"The amazing thing is that it didn't open until 1915, and there were no buildings here until 1916, and by 1919 95% of the buildings had gone," said David Turner, from the Narborough History Society.

The aerodrome set up at Castle Bromwich, Birmingham, is now an industrial estate.

But during the war it was the base for pilots including Fl Lt William Leefe Robinson VC, the first man to shoot down a German airship over Britain and Arthur "Bomber" Harris, who led Bomber Command in WW2.

Chris John, vice-president of the Birmingham Western Front Association, said learning to fly was a risky business - there were more than 70 crashes at Castle Bromwich, almost half of them fatal.

"The machines were very basic, the principals of flying were not well understood, and casualties were very high," he added.


Image copyright Nigel Cayley

As German Zeppelins began bombing raids on Britain the Government rushed to design and built its own large rigid airships. They turned to the man who would become famous for designing the bouncing bomb in WW2.

Barnes Wallis was employed by Vickers in Barrow, Cumbria, on the design of these giant airships.

He designed a series of revolutionary airships, culminating in the R 80, which contained 1.6m individual parts, 20 miles (30km) of special Duralumin girders and 53 miles (85km) of wire.

They were built in a huge shed, 450ft (150m) long, on Walney Island, close to Barrow, which also had its own hydrogen plant to provide the gas to lift the airships.

The shed was demolished in the 1920s.

In 1916, Cardington in Bedfordshire was chosen as the site to build another two massive sheds where bigger airships could be built.

The sheds are more than 800ft (247 m) long - an Act of Parliament was needed to release the amount of steel needed for their construction.

The R31 airship built there was only finished five days before the war ended and never saw active service.

The Cardington sheds are now Grade II listed buildings, and their cavernous interiors have been used as film sets.

Army biscuits

Image copyright Reading Museum

If Napoleon Bonaparte's maxim that "an army marches on its stomach" is true then the British Army marched on biscuits and bully [corned] beef. The typical army biscuit was so hard soldiers were able to turn them into picture frames.

The British Army bought more than 129m lbs (58.5m kg) of biscuits in 1918 alone, at a cost of £3,394,000.

Image copyright Reading Museum

The army had 12 different recipes for its biscuits - but what the soldiers remembered about them was how hard they were.

Only the strongest teeth could bite through them, but soldiers would dunk them in their tea or break them into breadcrumbs to add the endless army stews.

Huntley & Palmers in Reading made Army Biscuits Number 4 and 9 - their hardness and durability illustrated by the fact that some have survived for almost 100 years.

Reading Museum has a collection of their biscuits, showing some of the alternative uses soldiers put them to.

One was posted home with the message: "Have gone on hunger strike - reason attached - mind your toes."

Another has been turned into a heart-shaped picture frame, complete with a photo of a very young-looking soldier.


Image copyright Getty Images

In 1914 British Tommies went to war wearing soft caps that offered no protection to the head from shrapnel and bullets. Helmets were not introduced for the majority of soldiers until the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

The War Office had its own Inventions Department during WW1, and in 1915 this set about finding a helmet design that would cut the number of head injuries being suffered by troops.

The design adopted was patented by John L Brodie the same year.

He was born in Germany, grew up in Africa and made his fortune in Africa before settling in London

The Brodie helmet, as it became known, was made from a single piece of steel, making it quick and simple to manufacture.

The Birmingham based firm of Joseph Sankey and Sons produced millions of the helmets during the war.

Historian Roger Deeks has no doubt of the value of their output to the troops at the front:

"Several million were produced here [at Bilston] - thousands of lives would have been saved and lots of solders would have been saved from what are called life changing wounds - head injuries were awful - so it make a huge difference."

With bitter irony one of the directors of the company, Sydney Sankey, was shot in the head and killed near Ypres in 1915, the year before helmets were issued to British troops.


Around two million men found themselves in the khaki uniform of the British Army by 1918. The puttee, worn as a binding around the shins, was one of its most distinctive features.

"The puttee was almost like a bandage made of [knitted] wool, and it was wrapped around the leg," explained Douglas Cordeaux, from Fox Brothers & Co Ltd, from Wellington, in Somerset.

"The beauty of it was that it didn't need sizes - it would also stop your boot being sucked off in mud," Mr Cordeaux added.

The firm made an estimated 12m pairs of putties, which unwrapped would have stretched for 41,000 miles (66,000 km) - enough to go around the coastline of the UK twice.

The puttee was replaced just before World War Two with webbing gaiters secured by buckles.

The firm is still manufacturing in the same premises it used in WW1.

Vickers machine gun

Image copyright Getty Images

The machine gun took a terrible toll of troops on the battlefields of World War One. The Vickers machine gun was so efficient and successful it stayed in service with the British Army for over 50 years.

Even though the Vickers machine gun was introduced in 1912, at the outbreak of WW1 the British Army had only 100, according to the Western Front Association. The German Army at over 10,000 machine guns in 1914.

Demand for the weapon, made at the Vickers works in Crayford, Kent, soon rose dramatically - 266 were made in the last five months of 1914, more than 39,000 in 1918 according to War Office figures.

The Vickers could fire around 500 bullets a minute and was water cooled to stop the barrel overheating.

The gun weighed 28lbs (13kg) and its tripod around 50lbs (23kg), and needed a team of up to six to operate it.


ACME Thunderer whistle Image copyright Acme Whistles

Whistles were a vital communication tool on World War One battlefields - their sound told troops it was time to go "over the top" and also warned artillerymen that their gun was about to fire, so that they could avoid being injured by the recoil.

Most of them were made by ACME Whistles, who are still manufacturing at the same premises in the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham.

Demand grew so big, according to Simon Topman from the company, that they ran out of brass to make whistle's from, and had to appeal directly to the government.

"They rushed around to Cadbury's, borrowed a pile of biscuit tins, sent them around to us and we stamped whistles out of biscuit tins," he added.

The company also has a letter from a Sgt TW Harper saying one of their whistles saved his life by taking the impact of a bullet that hit him in the chest in 1914.

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