Troops wearing Brodie helmet's sheltering in a trench

WW1: Combat helmet technology - the Brodie steel helmet

An iconic symbol of war, the Brodie was the first combat helmet to be specifically designed and engineered for Western Front battlefield conditions – and its legacy extends to the composite material military hard hats worn by today's fighting forces.

One of the many chilling facts that the First World War centenary reminds us of is that, for the first year of the conflict, soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) went into combat without purpose-designed protective headwear of any kind, with only standard-issue soft peak fabric caps on top of their beleagured skulls.

The same risk was shared by their French and Belgian allies in the bloody battles of 1914 and 1915. Even the standard Imperial German Army's spiked 'Pickelhaube' – essentially a hard, leather bowl adorned with the characteristic brass spike ornamentation – offered scant resistance to a shell splinter travelling at high velocity.

By the end of 1915 the three principal warring armies had produced some form of protective headwear, but it is the British Brodie that can lay claim to being the helmet that exemplifies the formidable qualities of engineering-led utility as it was developed towards 'market readiness'.

The Brodie has been described by the Imperial War Museum as "a masterpiece of simple design", while militaria expert Martin Pegler calls it "the most instantly recognisable symbol of the British Tommy", although most troops would not have referred to it by by the same name. The designation given at the time was closer to 'Helmet, Steel, Mark I', though it is also referred to in some period documents as 'Brodie's Steel Helmet, War Office Pattern'.

What made the Brodie distinctive was that it represented a properly engineered solution to a life-or-death requirement. The guiding principles of form, function and material development on which it was designed and produced made it not only hugely successful at what it was made to do, but also the forerunner of 21st Century advanced combat helmets made of state-of-the art composite materials and other advanced technological features.

Big guns, bigger war, more injuries

The modus operandi of the heavy ordnance deployed to create destructive waves of indirect fire, and the highly attritional nature of trench warfare, soon combined to create battlefield conditions where enemy fire often came from above as well as in front. Opposing forces were now likely to direct extensive bombardments of artillery and other types of ballistic weaponry (such as mortars) to attack entrenched positions, rather than seeking to primarily overcome enemy lines via mass troop advance.

Head and face injuries caused by airborne shrapnel, metal shell case shards, and other hazardous debris shooting through the air, soon became a major issue for those on the ground. The risk of being shot in the head by small arms fire became less of an issue as troops accustomed themselves to inhabiting networks of deep trenches.

As casualties from head wounds mounted, the need for some kind of protective combat helmet became compellingly evident. In 1915, armies on the Western Front set about developing a solution. The French came up with the 'Adrian' helmet and the Germans the 'Stahlhelm' but it was the Brodie helmet, eventually issued to the British Army, that became iconic to the 1914-1918 conflict and remained a potent symbol of British soldiering for decades after the Armistice.

Initial development

The Brodie, however, was not the first combat helmet to appear on the Western Front. The French Army's M15 Adrian, introduced in July 1915, led the way. This was a composite manufacture, considered cheap and fairly straightforward to produce. The Adrian was also designed to fit in with the wearer's uniform. Its shape resembles a simplified take on a French fireman's protective headgear of the period.

Weighing approximately 1.08lb-1.10lb, it was made of mild (plain carbon) steel 0.7mm thick and consisted of a rim or brow band enclosing two halves riveted together and clasped under a bowl that covered the wearer's head. An additional component of an applied 'dorsal' deflector ridge added strength, and an embossed 'Republican' badge was often added to the front for divisional identification.

Although the Adrian did offer some protection from indirect fire, it was not sufficiently impervious to the projectiles that were causing the injuries and, of course, fatalities. Despite this, it proved popular with the military authorities, and comparable headwear was eventually adopted by other nations. The British War Office Invention Department evaluated Adrians as part of its own search for protective military headwear. It concluded that the Adrian helmet was "both too flimsy and too expensive to manufacture", according to First World War historian John Hughes-Wilson, and so it looked instead for "something stronger and cheaper" to mass produce for fighting forces numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

The British War Office, nonetheless, was aware of the proliferation of the Adrian and may also have been concerned about any disquiet among British troops who wondered why they did not have something comparable. There was another hat in the ring, however: self-styled engineer John Leopold Brodie, at the time apparently employed at the Army and Navy Store in London, who became aware that the search was on for a new combat helmet, and submitted his own patented design – the Brodie helmet – for consideration.

The fact that the first Brodie helmet was tougher than the French one that preceded it was probably less important than its ease of manufacture, according to Martin Boswell, the Imperial War Museum's curator uniforms, personal equipment and flags, because it could be stamped-out using existing machine tools: "The Adrian took 70 complex operations to manufacture, [so] it would appear that Brodie's design, with simplicity in mind, was clearly favourable".

Hard hat manufacture

Brodie's concept never claimed to be entirely original: it was informed by the medieval infantryman's 'kettlehat' or chapel de fer (in use in England between the 11th and 14th Century), but was constructed from a single outer component that was pressed from a thick sheet of steel, which gave it additional strength. It was a shallow near-circular bowl'with a wide brim around the edge, containing a simple padded crown, and an oilcloth liner riveted to the centre of the bowl'via a transverse belt. A leather chinstrap held in place by 'bales' connected to split pin lugs.

The first Brodie design, the 'Type A', had a 'raw' or 'un-edged' brim of about 1 3/4-2in wide, and was also made of mild steel. Type A Brodies were in production for just a few weeks, and only a limited run of 4,400 units was made, destined for the Allied Front Line.

Initial production was halted when distinguished metallurgist Sir Robert Hadfield (1858-1940) stepped in with a proposal to alter the method of manufacture slightly. This next version was called the 'Type B', and its production began in October 1915.

The Type B shell used mangalloy, or Hadfield's steel as it came to be known – a manganese steel alloy that Hadfield discovered in 1882. The 10-15 per cent manganese content contained about 1 per cent carbon, making it a non-magnetic steel with higher impact strength and improved abrasion resistance when the correct work-hardened state was achieved.

The process of Type B manufacture had to be precise or the alloy would have become too brittle and therefore useless for the battlefield. The bowl was formed from pressings from 20 gauge (or .036in) sheets of the 12 per cent manganese alloy.

Hadfield's steel was highly resistant to shrapnel, airburst fragments and other debris such as stones and solid plant material thrown-up by bombardments. Some sources suggest that Type Bs increased protection by up to 10 per cent over Type As, and 50 per cent over French Adrians.

"The Brodie, although cheap and simple to manufacture, gave good protection from falling shrapnel and secondary, low-velocity fragments," explains the Imperial War Museum's Martin Boswell. "The liner system, although not entirely satisfactory from a wearer's point of view, was perhaps arguably the best [available] at that time." 

He adds: "The attached buffer tubes helped to decrease the blunt trauma of a dent that otherwise would have caused substantial wounding to the wearer's skull – and thus saved countless lives."

The Brodie's wide inverted bowl shape, approximately 12in long by 11 1/4in wide, with a lined weight of around 2.4lb (variance between surviving examples suggest precise size consistency was not always a major issue in regard to quality control – although, in theory, less than 'in could make a life-or-death difference in combat), was fashioned to provide protection for the wearer's head and, to some extent, also their neck and shoulders. The curved bowl shape could prove deflective to lower-velocity objects; its relative shallowness, however, offered less protection to the lower skull and neck than the deeply-flanged German Stahlhelm helmet.

Mark I helmets weighed approximately 2lb 4oz. When prototypes were being developed and tested, attention was given to weight and balance issues: the Brodie had to be tolerable for constant wear over a period of hours, maybe even days. If a combat helmet was so uncomfortably heavy that a wearer was minded to take it off if it became too much, or felt that it encumbered their fighting effectiveness, it would, of course, obviate its purpose.

Brodies into battle

The advent of the Brodie helmet was not received with unanimous approval within'the British Army of 1915, possibly due'to the fact that, in some cases, senior officers were not consulted during its development and introduction, and may have been resentful for having it foisted upon them. "A rumour circulated that some generals thought [Brodies] looked 'unsoldierly'," reports historian John Hughes-Wilson, "and that they would make the men go 'soft'."

More practical criticism came from Field Marshal Herbert Charles Onslow Plumer (1857-1932), who as commander of the BEF Second Army in May 1915, won an overwhelming victory at the Battle of Messines in June 1917. This battle started with what was then described as "the loudest explosion in human history", created by the simultaneous explosion of 19 mines by the Royal Engineer tunnelling companies.

According to military historian and curator of military history at Lancashire County Museums, Dr Stephen Bull, Plumer considered the Brodie's surface to be "too shallow, too reflective, too sharp at the rim", with a lining that was "too slippery" – i.e., the basic leather belt-fixed liner meant that it was slipping on wearers' heads.

Modifications were certainly made to the Mark I Brodie helmet when it entered mass production later that year. These included a 'rolled' rim – covering the raw edges and making the helmets less hazardous in confined spaces, and a 'cushioned' liner that was later to include rubberised cushion blocks. A textured paint, often mixed with sawdust or sand grains, finish was also applied. Wearers were also permitted to fit an exterior sacking cover that camouflaged the outer bowl.

The initial version of the Brodie was issued for active service in April 1916 at the Battle of St Eloi. "Initially there were nothing like enough helmets to go round," according to Dr Bull, "so they were designated as a 'trench store', to be kept in the Front Line and used by each unit that occupied the sector. It was only by the summer of 1916, when the first million Brodies had been produced, that it could be regarded as general issue."

The Mark I Brodie was also subsequently adopted by Commonwealth and American Expeditionary Forces following their entry into the war. Produced in many overseas factories, it continued in service long into the 1920s and beyond – in the late 1930s some Mark Is were refurbished with new liners and chin straps and chin strap lugs and then redesignated the 'Mark I*').

It was gradually replaced by the Mark II in the early years of the Second World War. The distinctive Brodie shape was retained, but the method of fixing the much-improved liner was now a small brass nut and screw, the chin strap fixings or bales were now tougher, and yet easier to preplace.

This meant that a damaged liner and straps could be changed far easier in the field without access to a workshop. The Mark II was slightly wider and shorter in overall dimension than its antecedent the Mark I; it was also slightly heavier, weighing-in at approximately 2.5lb, though collectors have found some variance, and liner weight has to be factored in or out.

An icon is born...

As soon as UK steel manufacturers in the Sheffield region began to mass produce the Brodie in sufficient numbers for each British soldier to be issued with their own, it was on its way to becoming an item of battlewear that was inseparably identified with the fortunes of the 'fighting Tommy'. It received favourable press attention, and became a standard feature in Front Line photography.

"Cases have occurred in which the wearers have been hit, but saved by these helmets from what without them would have meant certain death," the Illustrated London News reported in November 1915. "Even in cases of extreme risk, not only has death been avoided, but injuries have been confined to bruises or superficial wounds."

The appearance of Brodies also created many, what would nowadays be termed, 'photo opportunities', and fighting troops of the First World War are usually depicted wearing helmets rather than the uniform caps that preceded them for the first part of the conflict. Indeed, by the First World War's end the Brodie had, to all intents and purposes, become part of a soldier's uniform and not purely an item of essential equipment. Combat helmets were worn in ceremonial parades and march-pasts – something that would likely have been unthinkable to top brass commands of the pre-1914 generation. The Brodie was adopted (and adapted) by other armies both during and after the First World War, and its later variant Mark III was standard forces issue until the closing stages of the Second World War. Brodies were also worn for a range of civil defence roles such as Air Raid Precautions and National Fire Services (an ironic twist on the French Adrian's lineage).

Brodie-type helmets also cropped-up on civilian heads: a variant fashioned of the pioneering plastic Bakelite or compressed leather/fibre was made to be worn by engineers engaged in areas of electrical work where metalicised head protection could present a hazard. A mild steel helmet bearing resemblance to the Brodie, but with a deeper crown – branded as 'The Zuckerman' – was also offered to the civilian population from December 1940, priced at five shillings and sixpence.

Phasing out from the British Army began in 1944 as it was replaced by the Mark III (or 'Turtle') helmet, which offered better protection to the neck and sides of the head. The Mark III was initially called the 'Canadian Helmet' because large numbers had been issued to Canadian troops for D-Day. Variants of this design were successively issued in the decades following'post-war era. The Mark III itself, and its Cold War-era successors, the Marks IV and V, were decommissioned by 1986 when the UK Ministry of Defence made the decision to move to helmets composed of nylon fibre.

The Brodie Mark II, meanwhile, continued to be produced outside of the UK. Until comparatively recently the Indian Army, as well as the Israeli defence forces, manufactured and issued helmets still based on this classic design; indeed, some Indian factories make them for historical re-enactors, TV and movie productions, and, of course, collectors of militaria. 

Further information

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