Reported in Scientific American, this Week in World War I: November 27, 1915
Between the late 1700s and 1915, helmets were worn by soldiers mostly for reasons of aesthetics. It had become detrimental to the soldier to wear helmets heavy enough to withstand the more powerful rifles that were in use.
By 1915, after more than a year of the Great War, it had become clear that shrapnel, not rifle bullets, were the cause of most injuries and death in the deep trenches that criss-crossed Europe. The British and French were the first to adopt a full helmet made of steel. The Germans were a little slower to discard their traditional pickelhaube design that was made of boiled leather but offered little protection against shell fragments.
The French design was named after Intendant-General August-Louis Adrian. It was not a heavy contrivance, weighing in at .765 kilograms (1 lb, 11 oz), but reduced casualties dramatically. The crest on the top was supposed to deflect shrapnel; the badges on the front denoted regiments or units (“RF” is “Republique Francaise”—Republic of France).
As with many technological advances from World War I, the invention of the device was not as important as the mass-production of enough of them to make a difference to the war effort. Manufacturing these helmets in France during the war faced critical shortages of men as factory workers. Therefore, most of these helmets were made by women who were newly entered into the labor force.
Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918 on innovations during the First World War. It is available for purchase at www.scientificamerican.com/products/world-war-i/