Infantry combat helmets have come a long way since their development a hundred years ago. Whilst the first examples were made from steel, since the 1980s ballistic nylon, kevlar and composites have taken preference. With the continual advance of technology modern infantry helmets are lighter, more comfortable and have better chinstraps. Helmets are now designed to accommodate the various comms and equipment used by front-line troops. The sci-fi fantasies of tomorrow may not be that far away after all.
Helmet covers have also faced changing trends, even prior to the Great War. Worn piecemeal by various units in various conflicts it was during the Vietnam War that their importance was fully recognised. They have now become as essential and integral a part of the helmet as the lining itself.
Focusing on the First World War and the French M1915, currently celebrating its centenary year, it is clear to see just why a standard protective helmet for infantry was so paramount. The initial offensives of the war had stalled into a state of trench warfare and the wounds inflicted from artillery shrapnel and ricocheting bullets were devastating. A reality that had to be quickly addressed.
However, the idea of an infantry helmet is no new one and the key designs of the 20th century may not seem so different from those used hundreds of years before, albeit with improved linings, chinstraps and better grade steel. The face of war has changed but the basic need for adequate head protection for those fighting had not.
The Romans in particular embraced this concept. Their uniformed legions sporting identical helmets, armour and shields, gave a distinct appearance of an organised “modern” army and no doubt made a vivid psychological effect on their enemy, even before battle commenced. This was long before the idea of a professional army had even taken root.
The Roman centurion helmet, and perhaps even its Greek forefather, offered its wearer a basic level of protection for the face and neck, without impairing their senses. A principle and acknowledgement that would continue through the ages.
Viking helmets, as well as those of the Saxons and Normans offered much the same protection as that of the Romans, although now the emphasis was more on protecting the crown of the head and face from blows and projectiles. Yet it is the helmets of the medieval period that bare most resemblance to the first modern infantry helmets.
During the 18th and early 19th century in particular, a metal helmet for infantry fell out of favour over tricorns and shakos. Even as a recent as the 20th century the fashion leaned towards cloth, pith and leather helmets, and it is incredible to think that during the First World War the spiked German leather Pickelhaube was used on the frontline.
In 1915 a helmet development process was sparked across the warring nations. The French kicked off with the M1915. A small light weighted helmet resembling a shrunken cavalry or fireman's helmet. It offered front and rear peak protection, as well as a comb re-enforcing the crown. The ears, lower face, back of the head, and nape were left free. It's style bared slight resemblance to the medieval Morian helmet favoured by Spain and the Vatican's Swiss Guard. Whilst it did not offer an all round protection, it was practically sized with a comfortable leather lining that did not impair its wearer's vision or hearing.
The British were quick to follow suit, with their Brodie helmet. Distinctly gentleman like in appearance its domed crown was surrounded by a wide brim all the way around, very similar to the medieval Kettle helmet. Like the M1915 it did not seek to impair the wearer's senses but on the other hand its protection was limited to above and deflection. The skullcap lining was made of oilcloth and although cheaper than its French cousin, was less comfortable and ill fitting. A US made variant was introduced to the US Army in 1917.
Perhaps the most successful in terms of protection was the German M1916 steel helmet. In a sense a very modern combat helmet for its period and a leap ahead from the imperial looking Pickelhaubes. The core profile of the M16 can still be seen in modern composite helmets. The helmet is somewhat heavier and larger than the French and British examples due to its deep dome crown and large side skirt that wraps around the rear, protecting the wearer's ears and nape. A shallower peak also offers some protection over the face. Similar perhaps to medieval Barbuta. The helmet also featured a three pad liner. Aside from its bulk and weight its protective sides impaired the wearer's hearing.
During the inter-war years these helmets underwent improvements and developments but in essence the original design ideas remained. The French M1915 developed into the M1926, with one piece metal shell and a suspended lining system. The British Mk.1 became the MK.2, with an vastly improved lining and metal shell. While the M1916 became the M1935, a more compact sized helmet with a cutdown skirt and an eight tongue leather lining
The United States was also active during the inter-war period, searching for a new infantry combat helmet that would offer fuller head protection and less impairment. The result was the fantastic and versatile M1 helmet, which went on to serve until the advent of composite helmets. The M1 can perhaps boast of being the longest serving army helmet. During its development, the experimental helmets for the M1 bare close resemblance to the medieval Sallet helmet.
Modern infantry helmets have undergone rigorous processes of design, development and testing, where the old adage of “form is function” is never truer. The difference between shrapnel and the blow from a broadsword cannot be compared, but if we take a look at the similarities in basic form between those primitive helmets and modern examples. It is remarkable how effective those early “helmet designers” were and which shapes have endured, albeit through inspiration or coincidental engineering.
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