German steel helmets

Fundamentally new headgear aimed to safeguard frontline soldiers from head wounds was badly needed by German military personnel as at the very beginning of the Great War combatants were issued only with spiked helmets designed to protect against saber cuts and small splinters. Those old fashioned Pickelhelms introduced in 1842 were nearly useless in modern especially trench warfare and the number of casualties from shrapnel and gunfire rose drastically.

Gaede Helmet (Stahlkappe M1915, Gaede-Helm)

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The first prototype of German steel helmet was issued in 1915 on initiative of German General der Infanterie Hans Emil Alexander Gaede (19.02.1852 – 16.09.1916), commander of the Army Group Gaede (Armeeabteilung Gaede) that carried initial designation Army Group “B” (Armeeabteilung B) before its renaming on November 25, 1914.

Army Group Gaede was stationed in the relatively quiet mountainous Vosges area close to Swiss border and consisted mainly of Landwehr personnel. Numerous casualties due to artillery fire – rock splinters art shells fragments – led General Gaede to undertake experiments in inventing steel headgear as war ministry officials neglected supply of necessary head protection.

Thus Steel cap (Stahlkappe M1915) was designed by Army Group Gaede chief of staff Oberstleutnant Hesse who even financed partially this unique project. About 1,500 steel caps were produced at the artillery workshop in Mühlhausen.

Overall Gaede-Helm resembled Viking headgear and was made of a thick leather skullcap with a solid forehead and nasal protector made of 5-7 mm chrome-nickel steel. This curved protector in an elongated triangular shape at its end was fixed to a skullcap by leather straps.

Although successful in terms of decreasing casualties Gaede-Helm was quite heavy as it weighted slightly more than 2 kg. As a result soldier was getting tired soon. Moreover neck and back of the head still lacked protection against splinters.  

With the introduction of the real steel helmet in 1916 nearly all Gaede helmets became obsolete and were sent for melting. Nevertheless Gaede’s and Hesse’s invention gave way to the usage of the chrome-nickel steel all the subsequent German helmets were made of.

Snipers’ mask (La plaque eléphant)

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Face shield aimed to protect sharpshooters from the enemy fire was made of solid steel. Due to its appearance French soldiers nicknamed it “Elephant shield” (“La plaque elephant”).

This shield provided additional protection to the left side of a sharpshooter’s face while left opened its right side for the sniper’s scope.

Two narrow short slots were situated in the upper part of the shield.

The shield was fixed around the head by leather straps that were riveted to the inner surface of the mask.

As those snipers’ masks were produced by various manufacturers several specimen are known differing in size, weight, steel quality and finish quality. Approximately 1,500 shields were issued.

Steel helmet M1916 (Stahlhelm M1916)

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Steel helmet with its distinctive easily recognizable shape became one of the symbols of the German soldier not only of the Great War era but throughout the XX century. It was designed in 1915 by the professor of the Hanoverian Royal Technical High School (Königliche Technische Hochschule) Hauptmann der Artillerie Dr. Friedrich Schwerd. He carried out extensive studies of head wounds suffered by German soldiers during trench warfare and offered his concept of a  highly protective steel helmet. Thanks to help of Marinegeneralarzt professor Dr.August Karl Gustav Bier (24.11.1861 – 12.03.1949) his ideas were accepted by authorities in September 1915 and shortly after he was ordered to Berlin.

First steel helmets which design was based on medieval sallets passed tests at the Kummersdorf training grounds in November 1915 and proved good protection for head and neck. Successful field test performed by military personnel from the assault battalion gave way to mass production of steel helmets. Due to an official approval in the very beginning of 1916 they were designated “Stahlschutzhelm, Modell 1916”.

Stahlhelm illustration 1In February 1916 they were issued to troops fighting at Verdun and after that the incidence of serious head injuries fell dramatically. That marked an end of Pickelhelm era. After new helmets proved their efficiency at battlefield their production reached 3,500-4,000 daily. By the end of the Great War nearly 8,5 millions were produced.

Steel helmet had two big side-mounted ventilation lugs (Lüftungslöcher) that were also intended to hold an additional steel armor plate (Stirnpanzer). Chin strap of the same type found on spike helmets consisted of a strip of leather looped around two side buckles and connected to each end by attachments.

Stahlhelm M16 design however had several flaws. It was cold during winter, therefore ventilation holes where often blocked with snow or dirt. Large skirt made hearing difficult, distorted surrounding sounds and created an echo when the wearer spoke. Since chin straps were detachable many were lost during combat.

Steel helmets were imported to Germany allies – Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ottoman Empire and Kingdom of Bulgaria.

Color and Camouflage Patterns

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Steel helmets were originally painted field grey. Early models were finished with more lacquer that gave them shiner appearance while those produced by the end of the war had a softer looking finish and were lighter grey mixed with green. Helmets were often camouflaged by frontline soldiers using mud, foliage, cloth covers and paint.

White winter camouflage was introduced in winter 1916 when official issue white cloth covers appeared. Grey cloth covers were introduced in early 1917.

Approximately 800,000 covers were issued to soldiers that figured to about one cover for every ten helmets.

Camouflage paint (Buntfarbenanstrich M1918) was introduced on July 7, 1918 by a decree of General Erich Ludendorff. The order stipulated that helmets should be painted in several colors relevant to the season, e.g. green, brown and ochre in summer separated by a finger-wide black line.

Four different types of camouflage were used – above mentioned patch, splotch (without black outlining), zigzag (for action in forests) and “tortoise shell” being the rarest.

Insignias were not authorized to be painted on helmets except for personnel of the 1st Foot Guards (1.Garde-Regiment zu Fuß) from the 1st Guards Division. They had a distinctive Hohenzollern triangular black and white shield painted on the left side of a helmet, additional insignia was painted at the back: white letter “L” for the 1st company and red Arabic numerals for other companies.

Stahlhelm M16 modifications

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1. Standard helmet with low visor

2. Helmet with high visor that are believed to be early models and thus quite rare.

3. Helmet with full visor that extended from the dome at a much higher location with a flare-out area being almost as great as that of the neck guard. This rarest modification might have been produced for easier gas mask usage.

4. Helmets without front visor. These helmets were supposedly manufactured for the Ottoman Empire as it is claimed that visorless construction allowed Turkish soldiers to touch their foreheads to the ground during prayer without removing combat headgear. Germany delivered 5,400 helmets of this type to the Ottoman Empire but the rest were rejected due to unknown reason. As a result these helmets were issued to German troops.

Meanwhile some tend to say that visorless helmets were manufactured for A7V tank crews.

Helmets without front visor were also used by Freikorps units during the Weimar Republic era period.

Frontal steel plate (Stirnpanzer)

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Heavy 2,5 kg steel plate aimed for additional protection of the forefront was designed along with the first model of Stahlhelm M16 to be used together. It had to be hung on the ventilation lugs and secured with a leather strap fastened at the back of the helmet. The strap was then seated against the rear rivet that held the lining.

It was a part of a sectional chest armor, called “lobster armor” that was issued to sentries on observation posts and machine gunners who were more exposed to enemy attacks than other troops. It protected against enemy fire at distances beyond 50 meters.

Due to its curved shape and oval slots it fit all helmet sizes and thus was manufactured only in one size. Totally 50,000 plates were produced.

Frontal steel plate however was unpopular as wearing such a cumbersome armor in the trenches was of dubious value and it made headgear much more heavier reaching 3 kg. Sometimes it was even dangerous to wear a plate as the energy of bullet could cause contusion or cervical vertebrae fractures that led to death. 

Steel helmet M1917 (Stahlhelm M1917)

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Improved model of steel helmet appeared in 1917 and sometimes it is designated Stahlhelm М17-18. Exteriorly it looked the same but it was simplified by removing the Pickelhelm chin strap mounts and attaching chin strap directly to the helmet liner. Also the grade of leather was of better quality than on previous model.


Steel helmet M1918 (Stahlhelm M1918)

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The third model of steel helmet that was introduced in 1918 was designated “Stahlhelm Sondermodell 1918”. The main improvement was a cutout area on both sides of the neck guard where the ears were located. The second difference was that there were no inside connecting lugs for the chin straps and the different strap fit directly to the liner band.

Sometimes this model is mistakenly labeled “cavalry helmet”. It is also widely mentioned that cutouts were made to facilitate the usage of field telephones. In fact the main purpose of the cutout helmet was to provide better hearing in the trenches and to reduce explosive resonance and echo created by the large flared skirt.

Special lightweight model of the M18 steel helmet was made of aluminum (Stahlhelm M1918 Offiziersmodell) to be worn by officers during parades.

Relatively less M1918 helmets were produced in comparison with its predecessors, M16 and M17.