Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Helmets of the Great War

A cornucopia of helms or mayhap a menagerie?

At the opening of the Great War, in August 1914, all warring nations went into combat wearing cloth, leather or felt helmets. The Germans wore the distinctive boiled leather, pickelhaube, resplendent with a decorative spike. After the great battles of maneuver in the summer and autumn of 1914, the war settled into its distinctive pattern of static trench conflict. It was soon noticed by all combatants that their soldiery was suffering greatly from head wounds, mostly fatal, from exploding shells. Even the cover of the trenches offered no protection from shells designed to burst in flight, thus delivering a deluge of death from above. The answer, of course, was to design a metal helmet to deflect and absorb shell splinters and ball from shrapnel shells. The French in 1915 introduced a metal skull cap designed to fit under the cloth kepi. This was a stop-gap solution and it was clear that a more rigorously engineered helmet was required.

Both the German and British armies in 1915 were considering how to protect their soldier’s heads. Both nations took a lead from medieval designs. The British copied the ‘kettle’ style helm beloved by English archers during the ‘100 years’ war with France. The Germans took their inspiration from the late medieval sallet style of headwear. Each design had strengths and weaknesses as discussed below. It is a common misconception that the helmets were designed to be immune to rifle fire; this was not the case. A helm manufactured to stop rifle bullets would have been too heavy and cumbersome for practical battle use. Helmets were primarily designed to resist low-velocity shell fragments and clods thrown up from air and ground bursting ordinance.

British ‘Brodie’ Helmet
The Brodie helmet was issued to British troops in time for the great Somme offensive of July 1916. It consisted of a shallow bowl with a simple extended rim. It was designed to provide maximum protection from air bursts and in this regard, it worked rather well. The open design also allowed good all-round vision and hearing was not impeded. The helmet was easy to stamp out from a single sheet of metal and was inexpensive to produce. However, because of its open design, it provided little protection from munitions arriving from the front, sides, and back. Paradoxically, it was noticed that the number of head wounds actually increased fivefold after the introduction of the helmet. Some thought that the helmets emboldened the men to think they were invulnerable to head trauma and therefore were exposing themselves unnecessarily. There was even a move afoot, from high, to discard the helmets altogether. But, luckily for the men, wise heads prevailed, especially among those with a sound grounding in statistics and it was quickly realised that this vexed anomaly was due to the helmet providing effective protection from head wounds as soldiers without helmets were unlikely to survive a shrapnel wound to the head. The helmet, even if it did not completely stop the projectile, at least lessened the damage caused.

Brodie Helmet

German 'Stahlhelm'
The Germans adopted a helmet designed to provide maximum protection from incoming projectiles. The dome of the helmet was deep and leaves of metal sloped down across the sides and front. Also, the helmet was extended at the nape of the neck. Due to the stahlhelm's enclosed construction, both hearing and vision were restricted to some degree. The helmet underwent various degrees of modification during the interwar years and the Second World War to alleviate these problems. Characteristically German, the helm was over-engineered and because of its complex shape was time-consuming to manufacture and relatively expensive. The side horns on the Great War helmets enabled the fixing of an additional front plate. This plate was usually issued to snipers and was supposedly proof against rifle fire. The carapace adornment was not issued to general troops due to its weight and cumbersome nature.

Stahlhelm modeled by a pesky Hun

French ‘Adrian’ Helmet
The French Adrian helmet was the first effective head protector to be introduced by the combatants. The design was apparently inspired by the French fireman’s helmet (oo la la, missus). The helmet was composed of a deep bowl with two separate brim pieces welded into position. To the front, a riveted cap badge was introduced and on the top, a metal comb was attached, again with rivets. The helmet was light and the metal thin in comparison to British and German helmets. The holes for the rivets introduced weak spots and compromised the integrity of the helmet. The peaks to front and back provided decent protection to the nape and upper face however, the sides were woefully unprotected. Also, the helmet was complex to make and involved riveting and welding multiple pieces. Therefore, the design was expensive and difficult to manufacture. Later in the war, the French acknowledged the inherent weakness of the front badge adornment and replaced it with a simple painted emblem. To sum up: the helmet was typically French and owed more to style than functionality.

Adrian Helmet

All types of helmet had an internal webbing structured for adjustment. The webbing was designed to leave a space between the wearer’s head and the helmet. This reflected sound practice and prevented dings and dents from impinging on the soldier’s delicate bonce.

In conclusion: The British helmet could be considered the best trench helmet as it provided excellent protection from projectiles raining from above. However, due to its lack of side and back protection, it was less efficient than the German stahlhelm in open combat. The French helm provided the least protection of the three designs because of the thin metal used and design weaknesses. The best, all-round helmet, in my opinion, was the German stahlhelm and it is a testament to the helm’s efficiency that modern combat helmets contain many features of the original German design.

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