In the early months of 1916 the surviving members of a small squad of German soldier huddled in the sordid recesses of a French shell hole somewhere in the proximity of Verdun. White hot shrapnel, fragments of rock, splinters of wood and earth careened overhead as French artillery shells burst overhead. The men drew their bodies down into the mud, clutching earth with filthy hand, taking shallow breaths, anything to present less of a target for the shrapnel’s deadly effects. Just as the rain of deadly confetti began to slackened a shrapnel splinter about the size a pea slammed into the smooth surface of one of the men’s steel helmets. The contact of metal on metal created a distinctive thud, followed by a gasp from the now wounded German soldier. Realizing that one of their comrades has been hit by one of these murderous bits of metal two of the men pulled themselves over the the wounded man’s side. One man drew the leather strap back his comrade’s chin while the other lifted the steel helmet from off his head. As the helmet was lifted the wounded man’s eyes opened blinked, then gently moving his head from side to side, he uttered something that sounded like, “how bad” His comrades smiled back at him knowing that the splinter did not penetrate the steel, only denting it slightly. His only problem now would be a terrible headache, but a small price to pay to live another day. Scene like this were playing themselves out all over the muddy battlefields of the Great War. What makes this antidote all the more interesting is had these events occurred a few months prior, the soldier would have perished from the shrapnel strike. These men, part of the 1st assault battalion commanded by a certain Captain Rohn. They has been designated to test the German army’s newest bit of equipment. The model 1916 steel helmet. A helmet that would not only provide invaluable protection to each German soldier who wore it, but would serve as a symbol of the Great War that continues to this very day.
Casualties from head wound are nothing new to warfare. Every army since the beginning of time has had to deal with their deadly effects. World War I was different though. The modern weaponry of the era had shown it had the ability to inflict a staggering number of head wounds, not previously experienced to the degree in earlier conflicts. Between 1914-15 the number of causalities, (many of them dead, or so severely wounded they could not return to active duty) made both the Allied and Central Powers take notice.
To deal with the growing issue the German High Command authorized the development of a steel protective helmet. In December 1915, military physician Friedrick Schwerd and professor August Bier of the Technical Institute of Hanover developed a prototype for field trials.
The helmet was fabricated with high quality chromium-nickel steel and featured a visor and sloping skirt which protected the wearer’s neck and ears. Helmet shells were produced initially in size 60-66, and later in size 68 and 70. The design was fairly innovative for the era, and offered far more protection to the wearer than designs chosen by the opposing British and French forces, both of which left the neck and ears exposed.
One notable feature of the design are two raised “horns” or Stirmpanzer lugs set on each side of the helmet. These lugs were deigned with the dual purpose of ventilation and to accommodate a removable sentries’ steel brow plate or Stirmpanzer.
The brow plate proved to be impractical but photos do exist of these heavy bits of armor being used in combat. The Stirnpanzer lugs were made in different lengths for different sized helmets. The smaller the helmet the more extended the lug was from it’s base. The Stirnpanzer was only made in one size, therefore different size lugs allowed the plate to be accommodated on whatever size helmet was.
These protruding lugs gave the helmet somewhat of an odd look. In the post-war era some have taken to refereeing to the model as the Frankenstein helmet, since the lugs resemble the bolts on the Frankenstein’s monster’s neck as portrayed in Universal Pictures film. Some have even claimed that soldier of the era refereed to the helmet as such. This is of course erroneous as the movie wasn’t released unit 1931 well after the end of the Great War.
The newly designed steel helmet was issued to the 1st Assault battalion sometime in December of 1915. The field trial proved so successful that Chief of Staff, General Von Falkenhayn authorized the issue of steel helmets. The first delivery was made in January of 1916. 30,000 of these helmets were sent to the Verdun front.
Distribution to the rest of the Imperial forces continued slowly through the rest of 1916 to April of 1917. Early production M16 helmets are known to collectors as “square dips”; due to the square shape formed where the bill dips to the skirt. Engineers at the Eisenhüttenwerk plant (where these early helmets were produced) ended up modifying the design slightly due to the fact that during the manufacturing process the helmet’s skirt would often crack. A good many “square dip” helmets did pass inspection however and photos show them worn though-out the war. A few have been found with late-war camouflage patterns indicating usage though the entire war.
Its seems that the distribution of steel helmets to the men in the field but a slow affair. On January 22, 1917 a telegram was sent to all army groups by General Ludendorff, chief of the General Staff. It announced that the all German troops were to be equipped with a steel helmet. This assumes that much of the army at that point had not received a steel helmet. After the order was issued it still would have taken time to be carried out, many men would have not received their steel helmets till mid 1917.
Each German helmet is marked on the flange with a manufacture mark and size stamp.
There are at least 14 known manufactures. The inside dome of the helmet is also marked with a code known as a “heating lot number” This number was to aid in quality control at the factory level.In some cases it may indicate where the helmet’s steel was rolled.
It is believed that more than 7 million helmets were produced during the period of 1916-1918. The largest share of these helmets was produced by Eisenhüttenwerk, Thale, AG, F.C. Bellinger, Fulda, and Eisenhuette Silesia, Paruschowitz Oberschlesien. These factories are known today by collectors as “the big three”.
The German military went to great lengths to insure quality control of their helmets. Contemporary records dating to June of 1916, show one helmet out of a lot of 101 was tested for steel integrity on the rifle range during ballistic testing – multiple shots at a distance of 40 meters using an antiquated black powder 1871 11mm Mauser. If the inward dent exceeded 2mm or other failure occurred, a further 5 helmets from the lot were to be tested. If these failed, the lot was scrapped and the steel mill which supplied the ingot was required to overtake the costs for scrapping them. During the final acceptance, each helmet was inspected in-plant by a quality control team made up of an Officer, NCO and some enlisted men known as Abnahmekommando. Prior to the installation of the liner, attention was given to weight, dimensions and paint adherence in addition to structural soundness of the shell. Each helmet that passed inspection was marked with an ink stamp made from a conjoined AK (for Abnahmekommando) on the inside rear flange by the acceptance officer. Helmets that did not pass were scrapped. Great care was taken to make sure no flawed helmet left the factory.
Helmets were painted at the factory with smooth low-gloss linseed oil based enamel paint. The color was designated as “field-gray”. The term field gray can be somewhat confusing as original helmets vary greatly in color. The official war department authorized formula was, 30% white pigment in an oil base, 15% ochre pigment (dry), 5% blue pigment (dry), 5% black pigment (dry) 20% turpentine, 10% siccative and 15% water. Yet original helmet paint can range from dark green to olive. Although some shades appear to be factory specific, it is not uncommon to find helmets produced at the same factory which exhibit variations in field gray. Color matching was not an exact science at the time which may explain the variation in shades of field gray. Once painted the helmets were oven cured at 120 degrees Celsius for eight hours.
There is often some confusion between the designation M16 and M17. The designation actually does not refer to the helmet at all, but to the liner. German helmets produced between January of 1916 and May of 1917 are fit with an all leather liner. The M16 liner consists of three individual 2-finger pads sewn to a leather band. Each pad has a cloth pocket with ties sewn onto the back. The pocket is designed to accommodate horse hair or gauze “pillow” which would allow for a more snug fit to the wearer’s head. The pillows could also be removed to allow for a larger head size.
In May of 1917 due to a leather shortage the liner was redesigned. The new liner continued with the earlier “three pad” system but changed from a leather band to a steel band made from sheet metal. The pads were now crimped into place on a steel band. Another changed was made to the liner as well. The pads were now to be made from white chromed leather (Russian leather) instead of brown vegetable tanned leather. This change was made in hopes that the chromed leather would hold up better under the constant moister of the trenches.
That being said large numbers of brown vegetable tanned pads had been produced and it is not uncommon to find these pads on both M17 and later M18 liners. M17 liner pads are sometimes found made from non-standard leather and backed with non-standard cloth. As the cost of war continued to plague the Germans ersatz materials were often substituted. M17 pads are found made from rabbit, goat, and sheep and on rare occasions pig skins. Coarse burlap was often substituted for the pad backing when cotton and linen where not available. There is some debate among collectors as to when and if production of the older M16 liners ceased. Original helmets are occasionally found with M16 liners bearing 1917 dated manufacture and or depot stamps. Whether these helmets are the result of being produced before May of 1917 or possibly were refit at the depot level with recycled M16 liner is almost impossible to know with any degree of certainty. It maybe possible that a few manufactures continued to fabricate M16 liners after the design was modified.
Liner Split Pins
The liners were designed to be secured into the helmet with three separate pronged pins, known as split pins. The head of each pin was welded onto two prongs. When the liner was installed the prongs were bent in opposite directions thus securing the liner into place. The front two pins are the same in design and size. The head of the rear pin is slightly thicker. The thicker head pin was designed to keep the Stirmpanzer (sentry brow plate) strap when worn from slipping off the helmet. With the introduction of the M17 liner the split pins were redesigned as well. The newer M17 pins had slightly shorter, but wider prongs then the here to fore mentioned M16 version. This design functioned more effectively and allowed a tighter or secure fit on the steel liner band then the M16 version. However M17 liner are often found secured with the early pattern split pins.
During the M16 helmet design phase one critical aspect was over looked, the need for a chinstrap.The solution was to rivet steel M91 Pickelhaube posts to each side of the helmet’s skirt. The design would accommodate the chinstrap already being worn on the Pickelhaube, thus eliminating the need to design and fabricate a new chinstrap. This design proved to be problematic. The soldiers found the design to be uncomfortable due to the fact the strap was worn fairly far back on the chin and often hit the wearers wind pipe. The M91 posts also proved to be poor fits for the chinstrap hooks, with chinstrap often falling off at all the wrong times. Soldiers found ingenious ways of keeping the hooks secured in place. Original helmets are sometimes found with bits of wire twisted round the post to keep the hook secured into place. Some frustrated soldiers even went as far to ping the M91 post, thus mushrooming the steel enough to keep the chinstrap hook secured. The M91 chinstrap itself when though a number of changes though the course of the war. Pre-war/ early war chinstraps feature brass hardware with brown or blackened leather.
By 1915 due to the strategic nature of brass the high command ordered a switch from brass hardware to nickel and enameled steel then finally to bare steel. The strap itself changed as the war progressed as well. Earlier model straps have the hardware sewn into place; later hardware was often riveted. Like the liners there are also a number of ersatz chinstrap versions. Sometimes original M16/17 helmets as well as Pickelhaube are found with a strap made from cloth webbing. Not much is known about these unusual straps and it is provable that they were produced at the depot level from recycled hardware when leather was unavailable. Originals are typically found void of maker or issue stamps giving some credence to this theory. In some cases the webbing appear to be British, making it possible that these straps were made from captured material. Regardless the number of surviving examples found on combat worn helmets does show they were used.
The chinstrap issued finally proved to be problematic enough that the high command finally authorized a new design. On July 15 of 1918 a newly deigned helmet was put into production. Although almost identical in appearance the new M18 did away with the ineffective the M91 chinstrap posts utilized a new chinstrap delivery system. The new design called for the M17 liner band to be modified by riveting swivel ring bails onto each side. A new chinstrap was also designed to be worn with this new system. The new chinstrap design incorporated a sprung hook or carbine clip attached to one end the other end being preeminently secured to the other bail.
Original M18 chinstrap are found riveted or sewn into place. This new chinstrap was a vast improvement over the old M91 strap. Not only was the issue of the strap coming off the posts eliminated but the sprung clip allowed the chinstrap to be quickly unfastened. Now a soldier could easily remove his helmet to don his gas mask when the need arose, as it constantly did in the Great War. Only six factories are known to have produced the M18 helmet. Its unknown if the remaining factories continued to produce M17 helmets after the high command authorized the design change.
The M18 Cut-Out
Due to complaints from soldiers that the low skirt of the helmet inhibited hearing another design change was proposed. A new prototype was sent for field trials in August of 1918. This new design modified the skirt at the lower edge of the helmet in an upward dip below the Stirmpanzer lugs. Today this model is known as the M18 cut-out, telephone talker’s or Cavalry helmet. The later terms have no validity as the design was meant for all troops, and not just to those who used the telephone or served in Calvary units.
A change was also made in the type of paint which would be used on these helmets. A new paint known as Wollstaub had crushed wool felt mixed into it to produce a rough textured lusterless finish. The hope was this finish would reduce the glare on the helmet’s surface.
All told 100,000 M18 cut-out helmets all in size 64 were by the Eisenhüttenwerk factory during the final months of the war. The design proved to be extremely popular with the men at the front and had the war continued it is possible that the new design would have become the standard helmet of the Imperial forces.
No discussion on German helmets can be complete without touching on camouflage. The smooth factory finish on the helmets reflected the sun’s glare making a tempting target for the enemy. To make matters worse individual soldiers took to the practice of polishing their helmets with motor oil to a high gloss for inspection. Early techniques to camouflage were to smear the helmet with mud which effectively hid all traces of a glossy finish. In January of 1917 the war ministry authorized the testing of white colored canvas helmet covers which were to be issued to troops in snowy regions of the front. On February 14th of 1917 the war ministry also authorized the production of earth and field gray colored canvas helmet covers. Some discussion was made between High Command and the General Supply Offices as to whether these covers were to be worn strictly by sentries and patrols or were all soldiers to be issued with such a cover. It appears no decision was ever made, but contemporary records indicate 800,000 covers were issued. As is often the case soldiers found their own ingenious ways to camouflage their helmets. Some men cut up old sand bags and shaped the burlap over the dome of the helmet, then with section of bailing wire secured the cloth to the helmet. Original photos as well as surviving helmets attest to a variety of methods used.
The practice of painting camouflage patterns on helmets has been a source of some debate. The scarcity of surviving original photos taken at the front of men wearing these helmet had lead some to erroneously believe that the practice was by in large a post-war aberration or was allowed limited in certain units such as Storm troopers or Machinegun battalions. While it is true that many enterprising Allied soldiers and French peasants painted camouflage patterns on discarded German helmets in order to sell them as war souvenirs, the German high command did in fact authorizes and encourage the painting of camouflage patterns onto combat helmet. In July of 1918 a directive came down from Chief of General Staff Ludendorff which called for helmets to be painted with a camouflage pattern. The directive reads as follows:
Chief of the General Staff of the Field Army
II. No. 91 366
7 July 1918
Through a purposeful, variegated surface paint on cannons, mortars, machine guns, steel helmets, etc., these devices may be much more easily hidden from view than before.
The authorized trials have produced the following results:
1. Steel helmets:
A painted surface with one color (e.g. green or light brown) or with small splotches of a variety of colors is superior to a standard single color helmet, although it still allows the recognition of the characteristic form and silhouette.
In this regard, a three-colored surface which has had the borders blended, simulating a shadow effect is not recognizable beyond a distance of 60 meters.
Particulars regarding a useful surface: Dull colors – the helmet must not shine. Sprinkling the still-damp oil paint with fine sand stops the surface from glistening in the sun.
The choice of colors is to be purposely changed according to the time of year. One of the three colors must match the basic color found in the region of fighting.
Suitable at this time: green, yellow ochre, rust brown
Separation of the surface of the helmet into equal-sized portions, consisting of large, sharp-cornered patches.
Support – On the front side of the helmet, no more than four colored fields must be visible. Light and dark colors are to be placed next to each other. The colored segments are to be sharply separated from each other by a finger-wide black stripe.
Necessary coloring materials for 1000 helmets: 5 kilograms each of ochre, green and brown; 2 kilograms of black.
After ongoing scientific testing, I have requested the War Ministry to regulate the appropriate seasonal color scheme. Until that point, I request that painting be carried out in the above-mentioned manner.
all Army Groups (5 each)
all Army High Commands (20 each)
Inspector General of Artillery Schools
General of Pioneers attached to General Headquarters
Commanding General of the Air Forces
Army Mortar School
Commander of the Gas Troops
M.SS Command Rozoy
General Staff Course Sedan
Field Artillery and Foot Artillery Practice Grounds
Chief of Field Transportation
Offices la, Ic, B, Munitions. Z, P, F, Illb (3 each)
The earliest account of helmets painted in camo colors only dates back to June 13 1918, referring to trials that had been carried out by 6th Bavarian Landwehr Division, who painted their helmets a dot pattern camo. After the trial proved successful and the directive was issued the practice spread to the rest of the army. It should not be assumed however that the every unit took part in the directive, as there are plenty of original photos taken in November of 1918 showing German soldiers wearing plain field gray helmets.
Today collectors have identified several variations of camouflage patterns found on original helmets. They are known as tortoise shell, stained glass, window pain, blotch or splotch and lozenge camo. It is probably that depots and individual soldier painted their helmets with patterns that matched their particular skill set, which may explain the numerous patterns. Although the Ludendorf directive was clear on which colors were to be used variations exists on original helmets. This maybe the result of the availability of certain colors at the front to the need to choose colors which blended into the setting where the individual found himself. Original helmets found having document service on the Italian front have been known to feature hues of blue, stone gray and white, colors which would have blended in well in the alpine stetting.
Attesting to the superior protection offered by the M16 and both M18 model helmets, these helmets continued to be worn long after the end of WWI. Both models would see future service with slight modifications in the Reichwehr as well as in Hitler’s armed forces during WWII.
Many of these helmets were even purchased by foreign nations after the war and were worn well in to the 1970s. The superior protection that the design offered served as the basis for future German steel helmets. Although the m16 and M18 helmet has long since been retired from service the helmet’s influence can still be felt. One needs to look no further that at the modern Kevlar helmets worn by U.S. and NATO troops. The design of these modern helmets offer the same protection that German soldier of the Great War all received from their steel helmets.
One can only wonder what the ghost of Dr.Schwerd and Dr. Bier might think if they were to appear today. They may well be pleased that the influences of their 1915 design are still offering protection and preserving the lives of many servicemen and women.