When the armies of Europe went to war in August 1914 they did so in headgear of cloth or leather. Much as they would have done for the previous 50 years.

Since I came upon a battered British First World War Brodie helmet (designed and patented by J L Brodie in 1915) in a disused-quarry-cum-rubbish-tip two or three hundred yards from our house, I have become interested in how these same armies put their tin (steel) hats on.

ALLEZ LA FRANCE

September 2015 will mark the centenary of the initial volume deliveries of the world’s first purpose-made combat helmet. The French “Adrian” helmet had its shortcomings. It consisted of four pieces – a front and rear visor, a bowl and a crest. The bowl was too close to the skull and the internal webbing did not absorb enough of the shock. Nevertheless, thousands and thousands of soldiers would owe their lives to it and the equivalents produced by the other major combatants.

The men of 1914 in their forage caps or leather headgear were not equipped for the exploding shells and shrapnel of modern artillery. The medics realised that three quarters of wounds were to the head from shrapnel, rock, wood, bone and other fragments. Although the velocity was low; much less than direct fire from a rifle or machine gun, the overwhelming majority of cases were fatal. By the end of 1914 half of the British Expeditionary Force [the regular army] were casualties.

“Adrian” helmet

“Adrian” helmet

The benefits of the “Adrian” to the French armies were immediate; by 1916 head wounds had dropped to 22% of which ‘only’ half were fatal.

There were the odd teething problems. The first helmets were painted at the factory in a glossy blue to match the French “horizon blue” uniforms. In sunlight they proved to make a perfect target for German sharp-shooters. The French soldiers smeared them in mud until manufacturing could be switched to matt blue.

You can’t please everyone; not Old Sweats anyway. René Armand with the French infantry wrote about his unit’s reception of the “Adrians” in September 1915. “We shrieked with laughter when we tried them on, as if they were carnival hats.”

There are a handful of photographs of Major Winston Churchill taken in December 1915 wearing an Adrian helmet. No doubt in the interest of allied solidarity, he sports one in a portrait

SUCCESS HAS MANY FATHERS

General Louis-Auguste Adrian's graveNot content perhaps with having the helmet named after him, General Louis-Auguste Adrian seems anxious to stake his claim to fame from beyond the grave. His tomb in Genêts near St Malo is surmounted by a granite ‘Adrian.’

There is no doubt that he fought the internal battles and succeeded in pressing the priority of the project within the army administration. More questionable might be the honour of having fine-tuned the design for manufacturing. One school of thought claims this for Louis Kuhn, a foreman, in the factory of Japy Frères.

HANG ON TO YOUR TIN HATHelmets drawing

Is there something about our family? My wife, the great niece of one of the men who wrote It’s A Long Way To Tipperary, is sensitive about warfare, but when she saw the photographs of the Tommies in their Brodie Mark 1 helmets. boarding the London buses, she couldn’t resist sketching them.