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Separating fact from fiction about the origin of the modern combat helmet.


The story goes like this: When World War I began in August 1914, no soldiers in any army wore helmets, since such headgear had disappeared from battlefields at the end of the Middle Ages. Thus when French infantrymen (nicknamed “poilus”) entered the incredibly lethal, shell- swept battlefields of World War I, only wool kepis (mil- itary caps) covered their heads. (See Great Warriors, p. 16.) Then one day in the Western Front trenches early in the war, an enterprising French soldier removed his kepi and placed his metal soup bowl on his head to gain some protection against bursting artillery shells, thereby saving his life during a German bombardment. French officers witnessing this innovation reported it to higher command, and France’s military officials were so impressed by the idea that they immediately adopted it. They rushed to develop the first modern combat helmet and soon issued to all French army soldiers their lifesaving creation, the Model 1915 “Adrian” steel helmet. Thanks solely to the French soldier and his soup bowl, by 1916 all of the war’s major powers began using steel helmets.

A variation of the story claims that French army Intendant-Général August-Louis Adrian witnessed the plucky poilu’s lifesaving “soup bowl” battlefield expedient. Then, inspired by the stunning revelation that protective headgear could save soldiers’ lives, Adrian invented the Model 1915 helmet that bears his name.

This is such a great story that it continues to be repeated as the factual account of the true origin of the modern combat helmet in numerous books and articles written by historians with academic degrees after their names and by avid militaria collectors known for their obsessively detailed study of their hobby’s minutiae. Yet except for the fact that the French army did develop and issue the Model 1915 steel helmet named for Intendant-Général Adrian, there is not a soupçon of truth in the “soldier and the soup bowl” tale.


Perhaps the most telling fact that exposes the story as fiction is that, as historians at the U.S. Army Center of Military History have confirmed, World War I “French soldiers were not issued ‘soup bowls.’” Furthermore, the size, shape and thin sheet-metal material of the field mess items issued to French troops meant that “nothing in the poilus’ mess kit could have been used as head protection.”

However, there is a possible explanation for the origin of the soup bowl legend: From March to September 1915, the French army issued 200,000 dome-shaped steel or sheet-iron skullcaps to provide soldiers at least some measure of head protection while the Adrian helmets were being developed and produced in quantity, and when inverted, these skullcaps somewhat resembled bowls. The skullcaps were extremely uncomfortable because they lacked ventilation holes and interior liners. Yet they proved relatively effective as a stopgap measure, since 40 percent of soldiers hit in the head wearing skullcaps were wounded versus 77 percent without them.

With the widespread issue of the Adrian helmets in September 1915, the skullcaps were relegated to more mundane uses. Although they were impractical for holding soup, they did make handy containers for loose ammunition for French sentries manning trench parapets.


The story’s claim that no nation’s soldiers wore helmets at the beginning of World War I is also fiction. Notably, German army soldiers were equipped with Pickelhauben, leather “spiked” helmets that incorporated some metal parts. While hardly considered combat helmets by today’s standards, they were certainly a prominent part of German battle uniforms and had been since the Prussians (who borrowed the pattern from the Russians) introduced them in the 1840s. The Prussians used these helmets in three wars in Europe, and the Germans wore them during the first half of World War I, until the Model 1916 Stahlhelme (“steel helmets”) replaced them.

Additionally, many mounted troops, including dragoons and cuirassiers, entered World War I wearing the same shiny metal helmets that had been issued as uniform headgear throughout the 19th century. Indeed, both France and Germany fielded cavalry units whose troopers were fitted out with helmets and breastplates. Although the cavalry helmets looked anachronistic on the brutal “industrial warfare” battlefields of World War I, they proved somewhat effective as head protection. During the winter of 1914-15, dismounted cavalrymen who wore metal helmets while serving front-line duty in the trenches recorded far fewer casualties than did troops wearing only wool kepis.

Other soldiers wearing helmets at the outbreak of World War I included those in British Home Service infantry regiments. These men wore cloth-covered cork helmets, although they served in Britain and not in combat. Yet similarly styled cloth and cork “sun helmets” were worn by troops from many nations in World War I colonial combat, including German and British troops in the 1914-18 East Africa campaign. (See You Command, September 2013 ACG.) The sun helmets had been introduced in the 1840s in India and then were widely adopted by the military forces of European colonial powers in the 1870s and 1880s. Although they provided no protection from shellfire, they did save lives since they shielded the troops’ heads from the heat and blistering rays of the tropical sun – soldiers who died of sunstroke were just as dead as those cut down by bullets or artillery shells.

The fact is, therefore, that at the start of World War I, soldiers in the major powers’ armies wore helmets of varying sizes, shapes and construction, including headgear that was part of their combat uniforms.


Certainly, the part of the story that is the most damning condemnation of World War I senior military leadership is the claim that commanders were so oblivious to the grim realities of front-line combat that they needed the “soldier and the soup bowl” example to point out to them that troops required head protection. However, the French army had become aware of the need for metal helmets years before World War I, and the artillery branch had conducted experimental trials at least as early as 1902. Soon after combat started, all belligerent nations recognized the importance of head protection and began working on suitable helmet designs.

The British army’s Mark I “Brodie” steel helmet was based on a design patented by John Leopold Brodie in 1915 and subsequently approved by Britain’s War Office for issue beginning in October of that year. Later, when America entered World War I in April 1917, U.S. forces adopted the Brodie helmet as the M1917, although troops in African-American units serving as part of French forces wore the Adrian helmets.

Germany also joined the trend in 1915. Early that year, after studying head wounds suffered by German army soldiers, Dr. Friedrich Schwerd recommended that Germany create a steel helmet. In mid-1915, he was ordered to begin developing one. After extensive trials, the Model 1916 Stahlhelm was formally adopted on January 1, 1916, and introduced into combat in the early days of the Battle of Verdun (February-December 1916).

France won the “steel helmet” race, even though when compared to the military forces of some other nations (notably Germany) the French army entered World War I plagued by technological disadvantages (conspicuously colored combat uniforms, lack of heavy artillery and barely adequate rifles and machine guns). Because of the French military’s prewar trials and France’s war industry that already provided cavalrymen with metal helmets, the French had a head start. They quickly developed and fielded the first modern combat helmet before the other belligerents could create and issue their versions.


From a stylistic perspective, the Model 1915 Adrian helmet closely resembled the French cavalry helmet, but without the latter’s tall crest and scalloped rear neck guard. The steel Adrian also was a near copy of the brass Parisian firefighter helmet, yet that design too was based on the French cavalry helmet. Thus, although the introduction of the Adrian onto World War I battlefields as the first modern combat helmet was revolutionary, the design merely replicated that of other helmets already long in use.

The Model 1915 Adrian helmet’s design was rather complex, and therefore the helmet required a more time-consuming manufacturing process than either the British Brodie helmet or the German M1916 Stahlhelm. The Adrian consisted of several individual stamped components that were riveted and/or welded together, including an oversized dome-shaped skullcap, a two-piece brim with front and rear visor, and a crest over the top of the helmet that covered the ventilation holes to keep out the elements. The steel from which the helmet was made was a mere 0.7 millimeters thick, which was even thinner than the brass used to construct the contemporary firefighter helmet. Yet the Adrian’s steel provided better protection than the firefighter helmet’s soft brass.

The Adrian helmet’s interior liner varied somewhat in design but typically consisted of a leather headband with additional leather pieces that extended over the top of the wearer’s head to provide padding. This rested on a tin corrugated metal sheet that was designed to provide additional ventilation and suspension. A leather chinstrap was attached to a pair of fixed D-rings on each side of the helmet.

The Model 1915 Adrian helmet was introduced in the same “horizon blue” (blue-gray) color that was adopted for the French field uniform that year, and from late 1915 to mid-1916 a fabric helmet cover in light blue or khaki was issued. Later, the Adrian helmets were factory painted a darker blue-gray with a matte finish to reduce light reflection. However, French Foreign Legionnaires and other colonial troops typically wore brown- and khaki-painted helmets, as they applied these colors over the helmets’ original blue-gray. Additionally, while uncommon (authentic surviving examples are extremely rare), some French soldiers camouflaged their helmets with splotches of brown, green and black paint.

From mid-1915, five factories in France began manufacturing the Model 1915, and eventually more than 3 million Adrian helmets were produced and distributed to French army soldiers. The Adrian helmet proved popular with other countries, as well. During or soon after World War I, more than a dozen nations (including Belgium, Italy, Romania, Poland and Russia/USSR) adopted it for use by their respective armed forces.

In 1926, the French army improved the Model 1915 by using stronger steel and by greatly simplifying the helmet’s construction (replacing the Adrian’s three main pieces with a helmet body brim stamped out of a single piece of steel). As the M26, this updated version of the Adrian was used by France’s armed forces in World War II and by French police until the 1970s.


 Peter Suciu has collected military helmets for 30 years. He has written dozens of articles on this subject and is the author of “Military Sun Helmets of the World” (co-published by Service Publications, 2009).

Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, is Editor in Chief of “Armchair General” magazine.

“ACG” thanks Colonel (Ret.) Robert J. Dalessandro, U.S. Army Chief of Military History, and Charles H. Cureton at the Center of Military History for their assistance with this article.

Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Armchair General.