One of the astonishing things about the First World War is that the belligerents thought they could go to battle against artillery with no better head protection than cloth or leather headgear.
Granted, only wealthy knights had ever been able to afford armor, and it was a liability for all except mounted soldiers: an unhorsed combatant in full plate armor quickly became a helpless can of meat. And by the time professional uniformed armies came to be, military budgeting also was a more complicated issue: financing a war was no longer a simple matter of confiscating the assets of one’s vassals. It was cheaper to deck out conscripts with gaudy colored costumes that supported the catchy concepts of elan and “fighting spirit,” but which largely functioned to discourage desertion, by making any fugitive wearers conspicuous.
A helmeted foot soldier might have been protected from the blunt force head trauma dealt by a medieval mace or a common cudgel, but a helmet wouldn’t necessarily prevent decapitation from a cavalryman’s sword. Besides, when picking off the enemy at a distance with firearms replaced hand-to-hand fighting with farm implements and pikestaffs, a torso made a bigger target than a head, anyway, so why bother?
But it’s not as if the belligerents of 1914 didn’t know that the other side would be shooting with shrapnel. Canisters of projectiles had been launched between enemies since antiquity, and an early modern shell was developed in the late 1700s, and subsequently earned its inventor, Lieutenant Henry Shrapnel, a promotion to Major (and an eponymous place in military armamentaria). Here’s a representative WWI sample:
Nevertheless, it wasn’t until about mid-1915 that the crested Adrian helmet replaced the stylish French kepi, late 1915 before the Brodie “tin hat” replaced the dapper British tight cap, and mid-1916 before the utilitarian Stahlhelm replaced the menacing German Pickelhaube. As much as the generals on both sides had hoped for a ceremoniously-clad war characterized by indefatigable infantry overwhelming strong points, and indomitable cavalry charges that would gloriously compensate for the inevitable casualties, the gruesome reality of what artillery did to troops trapped in trough-like trenches had given a new meaning to the term “cannon fodder” that politicians and next-of-kin back home didn’t like.
As part of my research for The Passions of Patriots, I acquired a reproduction 1918 Stahlhelm. It weighs exactly 3 lbs on my brass fish scale (it was the heaviest of the period helmets by a pound or more), and the extra weight changes the center of gravity and interferes with one’s sense of balance. It would tire me out to wear it, and I’m sure it caused extreme neck, shoulder and back muscle discomfort, before soldiers became accustomed to it – if, indeed, they ever did.
None of the period helmets protected the face or throat from sharpshooters or machine gunners, but the acute angle of the Stahlhelm’s skirt provided slightly better protection for the back of the neck than did the narrower brim of the Adrian and the high, flatter flange of the Brodie, although it is said to have interfered with hearing. The skirt also supplied a characteristic identifying shape that was exploited with sinister effect more than sixty years later, by the design for Darth Vader’s helmet.