The Revival of Helmets during World War I

By the end of the 17th century, helmets were considered obsolete, surviving in certain units only in a ceremonial capacity. By the end of the First World War, nearly all armies were issuing helmets as standard, and eminently sensible, equipment. Advances in technology, combined with the circumstances of trench warfare, had engineered a revival in the utility of helmets as protective devices.

The expansion of gunpowder weaponry during the 17th century had turned helmets into a needless burden and expense. Helmets could not stop a musket ball as they could the blow of a sword or the jab of a pike. They were still more hopeless if the soldier were in the path of a cannon ball. Accordingly, helmets ceased to have any meaningful use in the infantry, and they survived mainly in certain cavalry formations. In part, this was a matter of tradition and style, but they also retained some practical value against saber and lance, which remained important weapons in the cavalry of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Technically, the German Army began the First World War with helmets in active use in all branches of the service, but this was clearly a matter of tradition and style, rather than a form of protection. The Pickelhaube, or spiked helmet, was made of boiled leather and afforded no more protection than the caps of neighboring armies. It was not meant to do so; it served, instead, to remind friend and foe alike of the power of the German Army and its achievements in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The absence of protective headgear made sense in the context of the open warfare favored before World War I. With the advent of trench warfare, however, medical reports began to show that many of the wounds being sustained were in the head and shoulders, corresponding to the nature of fighting from trenches and other prepared firing positions. Moreover, much of this damage was coming from shrapnel, rather than bullets.

In the 18th century, artillery on the battlefield usually fired solid shot, which was fired directly at a line of men in a low trajectory. No protection could have shielded the several men who were in the path of the ball. The artillery of the First World War functioned in a fundamentally different way. Even light guns were fired from a greater distance, which required a steeper trajectory. This was an asset, not a hindrance, in that high explosive shells had replaced solid shot. Instead of a heavy ball being blown through a few men, now a shell exploded in the air above a number of men, blowing small shell fragments (and in many cases, prepared forms of shrapnel) into many of them.

As a rule, these fragments were small, and they struck the body at a slower speed than a bullet, penetrating less deeply. Because the shells exploded in the air above the men, these wounds were again often in the head, neck and shoulders. Against this threat, in particular, some form of steel helmet would be a meaningful level of protection. Over the course of 1915, the major armies experimented with a variety of patterns.

Early efforts were clearly provisional. The French began with a basic steel cap, or calotte, that could be worn underneath the uniform kepi. The Germans, too, explored the potential of some sort of steel protection, with the seemingly futuristic Gaede helmet seeing only limited use. This helmet was essentially a molded steel plate affixed to a cap, offering protection to the front and top of the skull, as well as a nose guard.

Later in the year, the French, British and Germans each designed a helmet that was deemed adequate, and by early 1916, they were in general use. Each of these helmets was governed by different national priorities, resulting in very different forms.

For the French, the speed with which the helmets could be produced and distributed was an overriding principle, as was the desire to have a helmet that would be distinctively French in appearance. The first goal was handily achieved, as the Adrian helmet (named for the Quartermaster General) entered use in the summer, and by the end of 1915, French industry had already produced three million. The second goal proved rather more elusive, as the Adrian was adopted in Italy, Belgium, and Rumania; they even saw use in Russia. In appearance, the Adrian is often compared to a fireman’s helmet. It was assembled from several parts, and as such, it was less solid than the British and German designs. The French preferred to offer their soldiers some protection sooner, rather than better protection later.

The British concentrated on protecting their men from an overhead blast, with no provision for projectiles coming from an oblique angle. Accordingly, the successful design, patented in August by John L Brodie, consisted of a shallow, symmetrical bowl with a broad brim. The “Brodie,” or “tin hat,” served its intended purpose, especially when improved at the beginning of 1916, but it was not produced with anything like the numbers of the Adrian helmet; production numbers first reached a million during the summer of that year. Later, the Americans would adopt the same design.

The Germans wanted the highest realistic level of protection for both the head and the neck, and were willing to wait for a suitable design. This came late in 1915 with the Stahlhelm, which the British later called the “coal scuttle” helmet. The Stahlhelm was based on designs from the Middle Ages, and a certain resemblance to the helmets of 15th century Gothic armor is evident. Deeper than the Brodie and built of a single piece, unlike the Adrian, it offered more protection than either, although it was also heavier. Officially adopted in 1916, the Stahlhelm is also distinguished by a pair of projections, sometimes compared with the bolts on Boris Karloff’s version of Frankenstein’s monster. These served two purposes: they were open for ventilation, and when a substantial amount of additional protection was warranted, they could be used to secure an even heavier frontal plate to the helmet.

A fourth major design was also created in the middle of the war, made of leather instead of steel. The British were pioneers in the use of tanks, and accordingly, they were also pioneers in the dangers experienced by tank crews. The tank itself protected them from artillery blasts, although a direct hit could still destroy a tank and kill the men inside; bullets, however, could knock small fragments of metal from the inner surface of the tank, causing them to fly about the cabin. This became especially prevalent when the Germans employed heavy-caliber anti-tank rifles. To protect the tank crews from this danger, leather helmets with separate leather eyepieces and sheets of chainmail to cover the lower face were made for their use.

World War I was known for the extremes of technology. It was distinguished by the development of new weapons, from airplanes to tanks to poison gas; at the same time, it saw the revival of weapons once deemed obsolete, from grenades to clubs and knives. The return of helmets flowed from both of these extremes. They had been rendered obsolete by early advances in firearms and artillery, but the latest advances in those same fields at the beginning of the twentieth century gave them a new purpose.



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Forty, Simon.  World War I: A Visual Encyclopedia. PRC Publishing, 2002

Laparra, Jean-Claude et al.  The German Soldier: 1914-1918.  Histoire & Collections, 2008

Livesey, Anthony.  Great Battles of World War I. Smithmark Publishers, Inc. 1997

Sheffield, Gary.  War on the Western Front: In the Trenches of World War I.  Osprey, 2008


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