Have you ever stopped to think about where the modern steel helmet came from? Or why, in the Great War, so many different designs were adopted by the main combatants? It’s a topic that will take you further back in time than you might have realised and reveal that the rationale behind the helmet of the early 20th Century was possibly more sophisticated than one might have imagined.
In 1914 there were in fact no major armies using a steel helmet. The British soldier went to war in a form of soft cloth cap with a peak, the French in their legendary cloth and fibre Kepis that had been around since the 1830s in various guises, and the Germans had the famous boiled-leather Pickelhaube dating from 1842. None of these offered any protection to the head, and, more specifically, against shrapnel from shells exploding either on the ground or overhead. So when the First War settled into a static struggle dominated by machine guns and artillery, there was a natural rush to limit the number of head wounds being suffered in the frontlines – though “Rush” might be overstating the case a little!
Unlike the German design, the French and British helmets were said to be based on an ancient design called the Kettle Helm. These were effectively a wide-brimmed hat made of steel and used particularly by the English in the wars against the French in the Middle Ages. It had a number of advantages: low cost, little maintenance, multiple other uses (it looked like a cooking pot after –all!), and was effective at warding off rain and plunging arrows or cross-bow bolts. As will be explained, the French were the first to introduce a Kettle-style steel helmet in the Great War and some say the British copied them. Others believe the British were already working on a design and that there are only so-many ways you can actually protect the head – so a Kettle-design was almost inevitable. Perhaps, Dear Reader, you can read on and then let us have your views on this topic.
The French were the first to introduce a steel helmet of sorts – it was actually more of a thin steel liner to be worn under the Kepi, and appeared in early 1915. They followed this with the M15 Adrian helmet, consider by some to be the classic French design, which was designed as a general protective helmet but with that distinctive fore-and-aft ridge, or crest, to act as a deflector against shrapnel from overhead shell-bursts, a growing problem in the war. It was lightweight, relatively easy to make and, by the autumn of 1915, was standard issue to all soldiers.
The Adrian was never intended to be “bullet proof”. It also had other weaknesses such as holes and slots for mounting badges, as well as a slit under the crest for ventilation and a separately manufactured rim that was joined to the bowl. Future modifications rectified these various faults and some 20 million were eventually made. Variants were common with many countries adopting the design and then modifying it slightly. American troops working alongside the French in WW1 were issued with Adrians, for example. It was effectively replaced by the Modele 1951 helmet, a variation of the US M1, which lasted until the 1970s.
The British had rejected the French Adrian helmet as being too thin and also difficult to make. They wanted a large number of helmets in a hurry to protect men being slaughtered in the trenches by air-burst fragments. The chosen design had been patented in London by John Leopold Brodie in August 1915; its shape allowed it to be formed from a single piece of relatively thick steel by ordinary steel-fabrication companies. The resultant “Tin Hat” was viewed by some as typical British compromise – not deep enough at the sides and unstable on the head. However, the wide rim protected the neck and shoulders, as well as more of the lower head from splinters coming in at an angle.
To begin with, they arrived in such small numbers that they were treated as trench equipment, to be left behind for the incoming troops when a battalion moved out of the line. About 250,000 were made by Easter 1916. However, they had an immediate effect on casualty figures – albeit not as much as they might, had the design been thought-through a bit more carefully.
A senior commander picked up on those early shortcomings: the sharp rim, the fact that it was too shallow, and slipped around on the head. It was also reckoned to be too “round and shiny” attracting the attentions of enemy snipers. It was quickly modified; the steel was hardened and thickened and able to stop all overhead fragments as well as a .45 bullet at 10 feet. A rolled rim was fitted, together with a new internal liner. It was also covered in a textured paint to reduce glint. It became the “Helmet, steel, Mark I” in Britain (and the “M1917 Helmet” in US service) and entered service in May 1916 with about a million delivered by late summer of that year.
The Mark 1 served well into the Second World War in various guises, though the British Army replaced it in service with the slightly modified Mk II. It had been further modified in 1936 with a better liner and a spring-tensioned chin strap. Many of these were used by overseas forces, including police and civil-defence organisations. As might be expected, some nations altered the design, but on the whole the original versions proved the best and were in frontline NATO service until the early 1960s. The British had started to replace the MkII with the Mk III Turtle in 1944, but the basic “Tin Hat” was in widespread service up to the end of the war and beyond.
As will be seen, the long-lived German Stahlhelm, sometimes called the “coal-scuttle” helmet, was perhaps the most successful design, giving rise to the modern composite helmets used by the US and other armies worldwide. It was designed at the request of the Army in 1915 by a Doctor Schwerd, who had studied head-injuries caused by shell-fragments in the early months of the Great War. Unlike the French and British patterns, Schwerd took the 15th Century Sallet helmet as the basis of the new helmet since it provided good head and neck-protection.
The Germans had of course studied the Allied steel helmets and tested them extensively in 1915, at the same time as assessing the new Schwerd product. After field trials by an Assault Battalion, a batch of 30,000 were ordered, but it was not the start of 1916 that it was fully approved, hence its “Model 1916” title. The Germans were impressed by the reduction in head wounds amongst troops using it in the assault on Verdun. Reserve Lieutenant Walter Schulze of 8th Company Reserve Infantry Regiment 76 described his experience of wearing the helmet on the Somme, 29 July 1916:
“… suddenly, with a great clanging thud, I was hit on the forehead and knocked flying onto the floor of the trench… a shrapnel bullet had hit my helmet with great violence, without piercing it, but sufficiently hard to dent it. If I had, as had been usual up until a few days previously, been wearing a cap, then the Regiment would have had one more man killed.”
In fact, the Stahlhelm could be fitted with additional “brow armour”, using the two large attachments points on each side of the helmet. However, this modification was rarely used except by snipers or raiding parties and in later models the lugs were removed. It was also said that the hollow lugs allowed cold air into the top of the helmet – not clever in winter.
The Stahlhelm was more expensive to make as it required several stamping procedures and used harder steel. It was not without its downsides as compared with other designs. The deep sides could interfere with lateral vision and sounds could be distorted or muffled; it could be disconcerting to hear one’s own voice reflected back at such close range. It could also be pushed forward over the face if lying prone and wearing thick clothes – a problem encountered in more recent times with modern helmets and body armour.
Some mods were carried out on the Stahlhelm’s design in the War. The 1917 version had a slightly better liner, but it was the 1018 version that saw the most improvements. These included cut-outs to the side which were made to improve hearing and to reduce echo from the wearer’s own voice. Rather like the British helmet, the next major changes were made in the mid-1930s. Setting aside an earlier attempt to make a lighter helmet out of composite material (typically impressive advanced German engineering), the 1935 mods resulted in the pattern of helmet worn throughout the Second World War.
As WW2 progressed, efforts were made to reduce production costs by simplifying the manufacturing process and reducing the amount of steel used in each helmet. Other cost-savings included a simplified painting process and removing the stencils that had been put on the side. By 1944 some new, sloping designs had been made and were accepted as the M1944. However, it was not this design that formed the basis of the future East German army’s helmet, but an earlier experimental helmet made in 1942, based upon the Stahlhelm.
Leaping forward a number of decades, it is possible to see how all modern composite designs are in fact tending to the original German pattern, with raised peak and lower sides. It might be that many in the West were reluctant to simply adopt the old German design for a range of political and ideological reasons. However, it is probably fair to say that, 100 years later, the Stahlhelm’s basic design has been pretty much vindicated.
One notable aspect of the story of the helmet is just how long it took the combatants to realise the value of the steel hat, and then to get them into service. If one stops for a second to consider that the Germans did not have anything in service till the end of 1915, and were not able to equip larger numbers until 1916, almost half-way through the Great War, it makes one wonder how many of the earlier head and brain injuries and deaths might have been avoided if someone had been thinking ahead of the game.
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