How the modern combat helmet was born in the trenches of France

French Adrian helmet. The Model 1915 was developed by Intendant-General August-Louis Adrian.

French Adrian helmet. The Model 1915 was developed by Intendant-General August-Louis Adrian.  (Collection of the author)

The image of the modern soldier on the battlefield is seldom complete without a helmet on the soldier's head. Designed to protect from small arms fire the modern ballistic helmet is often made of space age materials including Kevlar, but its origins go back 100 years to the trenches of the First World War.

While a helm or helmet had been used throughout antiquity to protect the head from blows to the head from swords and other melee weapons these heavy "brain buckets" -- along with most body armor -- were rendered essentially obsolete thanks to the advent of gun powder. Even in the late Middle Ages military leaders realized that armor strong enough to stop a musket ball would be too heavy for a soldier to wear and far too expensive. Within 100 years the concept in knights of shining armor was largely replaced with soldiers in colorful uniforms.

By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 metal helmets were largely relegated to the parade grounds and mostly used by cavalry units. As the great powers of Europe built vast empires with colonies around the world helmets were used but these were made of cork and meant to protect from the ravages of the sun more than native spears or arrows; while in Europe helmets became something of a fashion statement, most notably with Germany's pointy "pickelhaube" (or spiked helmet).

The colorful uniforms and fancy helmets may have looked good on the parade grounds, but proved all too impractical in the trenches of the Great War. After one year of fighting, where both sides were dug in on the Western Front and military planners began to take notice of the horrific head wounds.

"Shrapnel from exploding shells or bombs was nothing particularly new by the start of the modern military era but advances in ordnance technology brought about the variable-time fuse for artillery rounds and that gave rise to the 'air burst' which literally rained deadly shrapnel down on soldier's heads, necks and shoulders among other vital and vulnerable body parts," said military history consultant Captain Dale Dye, USMC (retired).

Something needed to be done.

A story has been told that French Intendant-General August-Louis Adrian saw a wounded French soldier in hospital who survived because the man placed a soup bowl under his kepi, or cloth cap. The story is likely a total fantasy -- for one, why would a French soldier bring a metal soup bowl to the frontlines? The truth is actually far less romantic.

Seeing the horrific head wounds, French military planners developed a rudimentary steel skull-cap ("calotte metallique"), which was to be worn under the kepi. These likely were so uncomfortable that soldiers may have opted to use it as a mess bowl instead. Moreover, it wouldn't have taken a soldier's bowl to remind a General that a helmet might prove practical.

"The evolution of what we perceive as the modern combat helmet can be traced to the standard threat/counter-threat game that has been played by soldiers since the beginning of military history," Dye told "The advent of the sword brought on shields and body armor."

In 1915 the advent of machine guns and artillery thus brought on the modern combat helmet. The irony is that the French had considered a helmet in the years leading up to the outbreak of war, but due to political infighting the French Army marched to war in uniforms that consisted of bright blue jackets and bright red pants. This was little changed from the same uniform it wore during the devastating Franco-Prussian War a generation earlier.

As the casualties mounted, in the summer of 1915 General Adrian quickly developed the Model 1915 "Adrian" helmet – one that could be described as uniquely French. However, it was in fact based on the Parisian firemen's helmet, which was in itself based on the French cavalry helmet that was inspired by ancient Roman helmets. Thus the influence was truly ancient, and while it may have been distinctly French in its modern design it was eventually used by numerous nations during the war including Belgium, Italy, Greece, Romania, Serbia and Russia. Many American soldiers -- notably African American troops of the 92nd Infantry Division -- also went "over there" wearing the Adrian pattern helmet.

The French were not the only ones to look to the past. John L. Brodie of London designed the British helmet, which was based on the medieval infantry "chapel-de-fer" (kettle hat), and this pattern evolved into the MkI, the same pattern later adopted by the Americans as the Model 1917. Likewise, the German "stahlhelm" (steel helmet), which replaced the leather spiked helmet, was based on the 15th century sallet or "siege helmet." It was designed by Dr. Friedrich Schwerd of the Technical Institute of Hanover in 1915 and approved a year later as the Model 1916, and quickly became as iconic to the Germans as the spiked helmet it replaced.

While the American "Dough Boys" headed to France with mostly British pattern and some French helmets, there was actually a serious effort to develop a truly American helmet -- and it was led by a curator of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Dr. Bashford Dean, who had founded the museum's Arms and Armor gallery, was called into service and given the rank of Major, where he was tasked with developing a steel helmet.

"He made a study of the ballistics being used at the time as well as the severity of the wounds, and he took this knowledge of medieval and renaissance armor as well as armor being used in the modern day and considered it for possible use," said Don LaRocca, the current curator of the arms and armor department at the Met. "For Dean it made absolute sense to look to the past."

Two particular patterns still stand out: the Model 2, which was based on the "standard" helmets of classical Greece and Italy in the 15th century; and the Model 5, which improved upon the Model 2 and offered far more protection to the wearer than the British-designed MkI/Model 1917. However, both were reportedly rejected because they too closely resembled the German pattern.

"It was probably a mistake not to adopt these helmets," said LaRocca. "The argument was these were too similar to the German helmets, and that must have been very frustrating for Dean, because the Model 2 and Model 5 were very good designs."

One other factor that has been overlooked is that Dean only began his efforts in the summer of 1917, leaving little field testing time before hostilities ended in November 1918.

"There were serious time constraints and the war ended and with it the project," LaRocca told

However, the efforts of Adrian, Brodie, Schwerd and Dean live on to this day. As the First World War was not to be the war to end all wars, helmets would prove to be a necessary part of a soldier's kit on the battlefield. Over time the designs improved and with it the materials used. While those early helmets may not have been designed to truly stop a bullet, today's modern materials have come a long way -- and it can be traced back 100 years ago to the horrors of the trenches in France.

"Helmets haven't left the soldier since the trenches," added LaRocca. "The steel helmet was a major factor in saving lives then as the combat helmet saves lives today."