Historically, armies have gone to war wearing a variety of protective gear, including forms of head coverings. But it took World War I’s rapid evolution of weapons and their destructive power to introduce the modern metal helmet. The collection of the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum contains a significant array of head coverings from combatants on all sides ranging from the American Revolution through the American Civil War, World War I, and World War II, and into the recent past.
World War I, however, brought dramatic changes in the way troops were protected from head injuries. Within a week of the June 27, 1914 assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, thanks to the intricate arrangements of mutual military pacts, with Germany right in the center, Europe was plunged headlong into a conflict that would result in the deaths of millions and sow the seeds of a second world conflict some two decades later.
Soldiers in 1914 went to war wearing uniforms more appropriate to the 19th century parade ground than the battleground. Cloth caps were common among armies, better suited to defend against a saber slash than shrapnel. For example, German troops and their allies wore the “Pickelhaube” or “pickax bonnet” introduced in the mid 19th century and used by armies in Europe and beyond (in fact, these are still worn in some countries for ceremonial purposes). The Varnum Armory’s “World Wars Room” houses a collection of these hardened leather helmets that were often decorated with a horsehair plume atop the spike and carried a polished metal unit ornament on the front. Varnum Trustee, Museum Armorer, and Army veteran Tim Jackson pointed out one example from the Armory collection that would have been worn by the German 27th Engineer Regiment, along with several tools and a “broom handle” Mauser pistol and “potato masher” grenade carried by the engineers. “A cloth cover was often used to dull the shiny finish and ornamental decoration on the helmet”, he noted.
“The unprecedented carnage of the early war years quickly demonstrated to all combatants that sturdier head protection was vital” Jackson said. The French quickly recognized this importance. In 1915, they began issuing a steel combat helmet, known as the Adrian, to millions of Frenchmen in the trenches (some arriving U.S. troops were given Adrians until supplies of the Americans’ helmets arrived in quantity). The M15 Adrian helmet, credited to Indentent-General August-Louis Adrian, was recognized as one of the best designs of the period, with some 20-million manufactured and used by many other countries.
Interestingly, a recent study by scientists at Duke University demonstrated that the head injury protection offered by contemporary helmets does not differ much from their World War I-era ancestors. In fact, laboratory experiments determined that the Adrian proved to be more effective in protecting from brain trauma caused by direct overhead blasts than their contemporary counterparts. However, the Adrian was not intended to protect the wearer from a direct hit by a bullet. After World War I, the Adrian design would be improved with a stronger steel stamped from a single metal piece. It would remain in use through the end of World War II and by French police into the 1970s.
The British quickly produced their own design, the Brodie, named for its designer, John Leopold Brodie, a Latvian native. It was cheaper to make than the French design and was pressed from a single piece of steel. Eventually, modifications would make the Brodie design exceptionally protective against plunging shrapnel.
An American model, the M1917, called the Doughboy helmet or the “dishpan” (the Germans called it “the salad bowl”) would remain in use by U.S. forces with modifications until it was replaced by the Model M1 in 1942. By the end of World War I, some 7.5 million Brodies had been made including 1.5 million M1917 models, used by American forces. One drawback to the Brodie model was that it offered less protection to the lower part of the head or the neck than other types. The British would retain a Brodie style, with modifications, until 1944, when it was replaced with a newer design, the Mark III or “turtle” helmet.
“Meanwhile,” Tim Jackson noted, “in 1915, supplies of leather in Germany began to dwindle and thin metal or even pressurized felt or paper was used. It became quickly evident that these offered no protection against the rapidly evolving and increasingly deadly weapons including ricochets from rifle or machine gun bullets, direct or plunging artillery shells, and hand grenades.” Most head injuries came from shrapnel. In 1916, the German Army replaced the pickelhaubes with a new steel helmet, the “Stahlhelm”, which resembled a coal scuttle, offered greater protection to the wearer, and which would become that standard helmet for the German army (with variations) through World War II.
Jackson added that the German helmet became an icon in its own way. “The Stahlhelm was used in propaganda by the Allies as a symbol of the German enemy,” he said. “But, that did not detract from the effectiveness of the helmet to those who wore it. Fatalities from head wounds substantially decreased once the M1916 came into use”, he explained. “In fact, the Stahlhelm even offered some bullet resistance”.
Some M1916s were equipped with hornlike lugs on either side to allow attachment of a brow protection device but this accessory proved unpopular and did not achieve wide use. The Varnum Armory collection includes a number of examples of the World War I models, in paint schemes including the original grey and camouflage (introduced in 1918). The Model 1916 and its successors, the M1917 and M1918, were extremely popular with German forces and it is thought that Hitler rejected a more modern design because of the esteem held by World War I-era soldiers.
Improvements to the standard German helmet were made leading up to World War II. The resulting M1935, lighter in weight but with better steel and improved ventilation and headlining, became the standard. A number of variants with model numbers 1940 through 1944, were used by various Nazi forces, but taken out of service after the war. East German forces retained the World War II-era helmet to distinguish it from Western troops.
Progress in protection continued. When the West German Army was reactivated, troops were issued the US Army’s M1 helmet (designated the M56 by the Germans) and in 1992, a new Kevlar design the Gefectshelm M92, replaced the helmet design that had been in use through the Cold War era. The M92 is based on the American PASGT design.
“Our military headgear on display at the Museum goes back to the American Revolution,” said Armory Vice President and Curator Patrick Donovan. “We continue to add to our collection and plans call for displaying the evolution of military headgear into the 21st Century.” From an exceptionally rare American Colonial Artilleryman’s leather helmet to modern US Army equipment, the Varnum Armory militaria provides visitors with a time capsule of centuries of progress in protective devices.