The New Army Helmet

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THE NEWS PHOTOGRAPHS that appeared following the lightning invasion of Grenada by United States troops last November were almost as surprising as the invasion itself. The pictures showed troopers of the 82d Airborne wearing gull-winged helmets that stirred up memories of the old German Wehrmacht. Since when, more than one journal editorialized, did American soldiers start looking like the Waffen SS? Overnight an elemental piece of military equipment had become a matter of public awareness and political sensitivity. So sensitive was the issue that when several crates of the new helmets were shipped to Lebanon, the U.S. Marines there refused to wear them.

Like most historical surprises, however, there had been ample warning for anyone who was paying attention. Pictures of the Teuton-styled helmet made of layers of a synthetic material called Kevlar had appeared in the press since field tests were begun in 1976, but only a few observers noticed and fewer still had memories long enough to recall that the current controversial model is almost an exact replica of a design rejected by the United States Army in 1917.

The history of helmets and personal armor is as old as warfare, and there was a time when great artists of the Western world doubled as armorers. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello, and Holbein all gave their talents to the development of personal armor. Then as now, armorers triedto strike a balance between the need for protection and the requirement to inflict damage on the enemy. By the sixteenth century the weight of protective armor had grown to an unwieldy sixty pounds, and as the French historian Gaspard de Saulx-Tavannes noted, it became “impossible for captains in their heavy casques and cuirasses to strike as many times as is their duty. Common soldiers had a simple solution. Preferring comfort and maneuverability to safety, they started to throw away their armor. Even so, an honest pikeman of the sixteenth century probably would have been appalled to find that 160,000 men poured onto the battlefield at Gettysburg armed with rifles, side arms, and no personal protection whatsoever. One of the few advocates of personal armor in the nineteenth century was the famous Australian highwayman Ned Kelly, who wore a combination helmet and breastplate made out of old plowshares. The rig weighed ninety-seven pounds but afforded Kelly superb protection. He was not apprehended until a posse shot him in the legs. But great nations do not like to be instructed by brigands, and at the onset of World War I the closest thing to a proper helmet worn by soldiers of either side was the German pickelhaube made from heavy, stamped leather. The science of protective armor, said Bashford Dean, America’s leading authority on the subject in the early 190Os, had become a “dead language.”

 
 

The reintroduction of a metal helmet after more than two centuries came about as if it were a plot device in a bad war movie. The French general Adrian was standing by a field hospital one day in the early months of the conflict watching the casualties stream back from the western front when he saw a French soldier on a stretcher who had miraculously survived a blow to his skull. “I had luck,” legend has him telling his general. “I happened to have a metal mess-bowl in my hat and it saved my life.”

This struck the general as a capital idea, and in short order the French front-line soldier was equipped with a casque Adrian stamped from dies used to make helmets for firefighters. The British followed suit with their porridge-bowl helmet, which left a large area of the head unprotected but had a flared rim that helped shieldmen in the trenches from falling debris. The Germans quickly developed their coal-scuttle helmet, which proved to be not only distinctive but also so ideally suited to the work at hand that, between the wars, SS officer Count Baudissin would remark with some justification that “the most perfect shape, the sublimest image that has been recently created in Germany has not come out of any artist’s studio. It is the steel helmet.”

As the United States entered the war, several designers acknowledged the natural superiority of the German design and suggested a similar helmet for use by American troops. But the French high command, fearing recognition problems in the field, refused to allow it. Eventually the United States settled on copying the British model. In spite of its limitations, the helmet was readily available and inexpensive to produce—important factors for long-range planners who foresaw a need for more than six million helmets by January of 1919.