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

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The British Mark I Helmet

The Mark I helmet, from a design by British inventor John L. Brodie, was the standard steel helmet used by the British Empire forces. It protected soldiers’ heads from shrapnel bullets, shell fragments, and other flying debris on the battlefield. Brodie's design using hardened manganese steel (the type A) entered service in the fall of 1915.  It was criticized widely.  The improved Mark I version entered service in May 1916 and was used by a number of armies up through the 1960s.  The helmet was adopted by American forces when they entered the war. The U.S. manufactured version was designated the Model 1917.

In the early months of the war, the French Army was the first to experiment with steel head protection. A simple bowl-shaped helmet called la cervelière (the “brain pan”) was worn underneath a regular cloth cap. Its close-fitting design made it terribly uncomfortable to wear, so an improved design, called the Adrian helmet was developed. By the end of 1915, France was mass-producing the first general-issued steel helmet of the 20th century.

As early as November 1915, British military authorities recognized that every soldier on the battlefield should be equipped with a helmet at all times. It took several months before the Mark I helmets could be manufactured in quantities sufficient to meet demand. In February 1916, for example, there were only enough helmets for the Canadian forces to equip about one in five soldiers. As a result, helmets had to be shared.  When soldiers from the forward trenches were relieved they turned in their helmets for redistribution to the incoming men. By the end of 1916, the supply increased to the point that every soldier was issued a helmet, which he retained at all times. 

The Mark I in the Trenches

The Mark I helmet weighed 950 grams. With its wide brim, the helmet offered protection from above, but it left the sides and back of the head exposed. The earliest Mark I helmets had a smooth paint finish, which reflected the sunlight, offering poor camouflage. Later helmets were finished with a rougher surface to minimize reflection of light. It was also common for burlap or cloth covers to be fitted over top of the helmets, to hide the shine completely and break up the silhouette. This practice was officially sanctioned by military authorities, although it is unclear if the covers were factory-sewn or improvised closer to the front, possibly from sandbags.

The Mark I helmet reduced the rate of serious head injuries. For example, a wartime survey revealed that among 960 wounded soldiers equipped with helmets admitted to a casualty clearing station during a 24-hour period, there were a total of seven head injuries. Before helmets had been introduced, a sample of this size would have included approximately 30 serious head injuries.

Source:  Canadian War Museum

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