“To Germany’s enemies, the helmet quickly became associated with ‘Hun’ barbarity.”
THE GERMAN ARMY’S spiked helmet or pickelhaube (is arguably one of the most enduring symbols of the First World War. The polished black leather helmet with ornamental metal spike on top did very little to protect the wearer from bullets or shell fragments, but it was instantly recognizable by friend and foe alike.
The Rise of the Pickelhaube
And while the pickelhaube will forever be linked to the armies of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the distinctive piece of headgear was enormously popular with a number of nations’ armies during the 19th Century.
Originally introduced for the Prussian infantry in 1842, the helmet quickly caught on and was used by militaries and police forces in Mexico, South America, Portugal and Scandinavia. Even the British pith-style helmet of the late 19th Century and the famous English bobby helmet were inspired by the Prussian pickelhaube.
When the German army invaded France and Belgium in 1914, its troops wore the 1892 pattern cloth-covered version of the pickelhaube, most often with a regimental number inscribed into or sewn onto the fabric covering. To Germany’s enemies, the helmet quickly became associated with Hun barbarity as propaganda artists filled British, French and American newspapers with illustrations of pickelhaube-wearing Germans committing all manner of atrocities upon French and Belgian civilians.
As the war entered its second year, leather became scarce in Germany so manufacturers began to produce the helmet using everything from treated felt to sheet metal instead. Even cardboard was used as a substitute.
Pulled from Service
Such materials afforded the wearer very little protection and the army soon recognized that its famous helmet was better suited to the parade square than the front lines. The following year, the pickelhabue was gradually withdrawn from service and replaced with a larger and more protective steel pot-style helmet, known as the M1916 stahlhelm.
Equally recognizable as a symbol of German militarism, the newer helmet resembled a large oversized rounded cauldron. It featured a peaked visor with a flared bottom that extended low over the ears and the back of the neck. It also had ventilation holes on the side and two protruding bolts.
Although much heavier and with an unpleasant tendency to impede the wearer’s hearing, German troops preferred more protective head gear. Many reported that it stopped bullets and shrapnel that likely would have been fatal had they been wearing their earlier helmet. In fact, casualties from head wounds dropped considerably with the stahlhelm, according to some sources by as much as 70 percent.
German troops soon began to paint camouflage patterns on their new helmets. Official paint schemes were soon established that specified green and brown areas separated by a finger width of black.
Third Reich Stahlhelms
A slightly modified version of the helmet, the M1918, was introduced in the final year of the war.
After the armistice, Germany continued to outfit its reduced post-war army with the M1918 helmet.
After the Nazis took power in 1933, a smaller light-weight plastic version of the stahlhelm was introduced for ceremonial occasions. This model was itself replaced by a steel variant that featured a reduced flared skirt and visor. The later model, the M1935, saw a production run of 2 million and was the helmet worn by Wehrmacht and SS troops into the first years of the Second World War. A black, white and red shield as well as a Third Reich helmet decal were added to either side of the stahlhelm, with specialized decals for navy, air force or the SS, replacing the tri-coloured shield.
Subsequent models, the M1940 and the M1942, maintained the same shape but were simplified in order to speed manufacturing. A minimized version with no skirt or visor was also introduced for German Fallschirmjager paratroops.
Like the pickelhaube in the 19th Century, the stahlhelm became popular with many armies. Between 1918 and 1939 other countries adopted either surplus M1918s, subsequent variants or designed their own domestic copies of the helmet. Ireland, Bolivia, Hungary, Spain, and Nationalist China, for example all used stahlhelms in the 20s and 30s. Even Poland obtained large numbers of M1918s after the First World War, some of which were worn by troops defending the country from the Nazis in 1939.
After the Second World War, Germany abandoned the stahlhelm as an attempt to distance itself from Nazi militarism and instead equipped its new peacetime army with the U.S. steel pot helmet worn by American GIs. Ironically, the U.S. discarded its helmets in the 1980s, replacing it with a Kevlar model reminiscent of the stahlhelm, which was quickly dubbed the “Fritz”.