Reported in Scientific American, this Week in World War I: January 1, 1916
As 1916 opened, there was some rare positive news from the war in Europe (although it should be noted that bad news rarely came through the military censors intact). The new French helmet, named after Intendant-General August-Louis Adrian, had been issued to infantry starting in 1915. The article on New Year’s Day of 1916 reported that the protective headgear had shown itself to be a life-saver in the trenches.
It seems obvious now that helmets are protective, but before their reintroduction in World War I, the increasing power of rifle bullets since the 18th century meant that any kind of body armor, in order to protect the wearer, had to be excessively heavy. Yet in 1914, as opposing armies had dug themselves into the ground behind fields of barbed wire, shellfire had become more intense, causing a larger percentage of casualties. The new helmet, made of mild steel, was not proof against rifle or machine-gun fire, but it reduced the danger from shell splinters and shrapnel bullets. The overburdened infantrymen, struggling through muddy trenches, were not thrilled with the idea of carrying something else that could not protect them against direct fire, and even in 1916 the article pointed out that the helmet “at first the men complained was rather heavy to wear.” But after over two million helmets had been made and distributed to front-line troops, it showed itself to be useful in reducing the number and severity of injuries to the head and neck.
The images of these helmets were perhaps all the average infantryman needed to see to understand the benefits of the “tin hat”: it was very easy to imagine the kinds of wounds that would have been inflicted had not the helmet been between projectile and skull.
By the end of the war, all of the armed forces were issuing some kind of steel helmet to their front-line troops.
Our full archive of the Great War, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914-1918 on innovations and medical advances during the war. It is available for purchase at www.scientificamerican.com/products/world-war-i