Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Replacing the Pickelhaube: The M1916 Stahlhelm Helmet

The M1916 Stahlhelm Helmet

Contributed by Ralph Reiley

The M1916 Stahlhelm

The German Pickelhaube (spiked helmet) was found to be totally unsuitable for trench warfare. It was not durable in the rough conditions of the trenches, it was very expensive to produce, and it provided no real combat protection. In 1915 Army Group Gaede, named after the commanding general, was in position in the Vosges Mountains, near the Swiss border. General Gaede was alarmed about the high number of head wounds his soldiers were receiving, in his relatively "quiet"sector of the front. Growing frustrated with administrative red tape and lack of action, he had his own helmet designed and supplied to about 1,500 to his frontline troops.

Few examples remain, as most were melted down after the M1916 Stahlhelm was introduced. Gaede's helmet was very heavy at 4.5 pounds. It consisted of two parts, a soft leather and cloth skull cap that covered the head and a heavy steel plate, attached to the leather cap with rivets. The thick curved steel plate only covered the forehead area, with a long nose piece hanging down, similar to the Norman helmets of the 11th century. It only protected the front of the head, where the majority of wounds occurred. The helmet was less than successful, but it did have one feature that was later used in the Stahlhelm. It was made from a chromium-nickel steel alloy, that proved to be very strong.

The Steel Helmet of Army Group "Gaede"

After extensive testing for the optimum shape, the distinctive "coal scuttle" design was determined to be the best shape for protecting the head and neck. This design had its roots in a helmet popular in the 16th century. In February of 1916 the Stahlhelm was introduced in small numbers to the frontline troops engaged in the battle of Verdun. The resulting reduction in the number of head wounds suffered by the soldiers led to mass production of the M1916 Stahlhelm and the replacement of the Pickelhaube within a few months on the Western Front, and on the Eastern Front by mid-1917. When the new helmet was first introduced, the troops leaving the trenches turned their helmets over to the troops relieving them. It is not uncommon to see photographs from this period of soldiers in the same unit wearing both the Pickelhaube and the Stahlhelm, as supply could not meet demand for some time.

The basic helmet shell is formed from one steel disk and went through at least nine stamping stages before it reached its final shape. The rivets at the lower side skirts fasten M1891 Pickelhaube side posts to attach the M1891 Pickelhaube chinstrap. The helmet liner is held in place with three split rivets. The liner was made of a leather or sheet metal band with three leather tabs with pads attached to it, forming a very efficient internal sizing system. The liner was designed so that the helmet would remain one finger width away from the head at the sides and two at the top. This was to prevent injuries to the head by objects striking the helmet and denting it.

At the sides of the helmet are two large lugs, which served two functions. The first function was for ventilation and the second function was to support a heavy armored plate, called a Stirnpanzer. The plate was notched so that it could hang on the lugs and was secured with a leather strap that fastened at the back of the helmet. Issued along with this armored helmet plate was a set of sectional chest armor, called lobster armor by collectors, which weighed 35 pounds. It was thought that this armor would protect sentries and machine gunners who were more exposed to enemy fire than other troops. Generally, the soldiers threw the armor away at the first opportunity, as wearing the cumbersome armor in the trenches was of dubious value, making both the helmet plate and lobster armor quite rare today.


The M1916 Stahlhelm with Stirnpanzer

A soldier poses for the camera with M1916 Stahlhelm
with Stirnpanzer and body armor

The Stahlhelm came in several sizes, as did the Pickelhaube. The smallest size was 60, and the largest was 68, although some size 70 were made. The smaller-sized helmets, sizes 60, 62 and 64, had an extra step on the helmet lugs, to make up for their small size so that the helmet plate, which only came in one size, could be attached to all helmets. The size of the helmet is usually stamped somewhere on the inside skirt.

The M1916 Stahlhelm with Canvas Cover

In late 1916 a white helmet cover was tested for winter camouflage. It was not particularly successful. In February of 1917 a grey canvas helmet cover began to be issued to cut down glare on the helmet from the sun and moon. In 1917 the helmet was simplified by removing the Pickelhaube chinstrap mounts and attaching the chinstrap directly to the helmet liner. This helmet was designated the M1917 Stahlhelm. In early 1918 another variation was tested. Collectors refer to it as the telephone-operator helmet, or cavalry model, as it had a curved section removed from the side skirts to uncover the ears. The M1918 Stahlhelm design was intended to reduce blast injuries to the ears caused by the deep skirt. This modification did not seem particularly successful, and this M1918 helmet was not produced in large numbers.

The M1918 Stahlhelm, with various types of painted finishes

The Stahlhelm was painted field grey, until an order of the General Staff, dated 7 July 1918, ordered a camouflage paint scheme. The official camouflage pattern for new helmets was painted over a green or brown base coat. A colored lozenge pattern was used, with a black finger-wide stripe separating the green, yellow ocher, and rust brown camouflage colors. Helmets already in the field were to be painted in camouflage colors as well as local conditions allowed. Camouflage helmets also exist where the various colors are blended together, without the black striping. Camouflage helmets, despite the official order for all helmets to be repainted, are not common, and draw a higher price with collectors than standard field grey helmets.

Various camouflage patterns

The German M1916 Stahlhelm remained basically unchanged until it was replaced by the M1935 Stahlhelm. The armor plate support lugs were removed, the skirts were reduced in size, and the thickness of the steel was reduced, producing a much lighter helmet. It is interesting that the Kevlar helmet used now by the U.S. Army bears a striking resemblance to a helmet designed over 80 years ago. 

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