The Fall of the Pickelhaube: Wartime Necessity

In the First World War exhibition at the Deutsche Historisches Museum in Berlin there is an interesting display of the ten stages of the manufacture of a German stahlhelm, the steel helmet which was mass-produced for the German Army from 1916. It shows the ingenuity of wartime design: the need for as many helmets as possible, utilising as little material and for as little money as possible to equip the ever-expanding army. This necessity was experienced by all nations involved in the Great War, but it is especially notable in the case of Germany.

The display at the German History Museum
The stahlhelm illustrates the compromises the war forced on Germany, as it replaced the ornate pickelhaube that had served as the symbol of German, and particularly Prussian, strength since the mid-nineteenth century. First designed in 1842, the pickelhauben which were worn into war in 1914 were of an 1895 pattern. The helmet was expensive and difficult to produce. Predominantly made from a leather shell and comprising of approximately 20 additional pieces, they were highly complex as well as not being the most safe under shell fire. They also carried an elaborate brass emblem on the front, denoting the German kingdom (or state) to which the soldier belonged. The most notable of these is the Prussian Eagle, which not only dominated the German geography, but also the narrative of German military prowess. Its iconography is noted by Peter Doyle, who included it in his book 'The First World War in 100 Objects'.
1914 pickelhaube (source)

If the pickelhaube was symbolic of the imperial heroes of Prussia, the stahlhelm represented the pressure Germany was under at the mid-point of the war. The one-piece metel helmet was introduced in early 1916, as a response to the increasing numbers of troops and the alarming rates of head wounds. Its plain, simplistic design demonstrates the German High Command's change in focus. German military pride and its heroic Prussian eagle no longer represented the German Army. This grandeur and ceremony had been replaced by necessity and utility.

The Germans, like the British, were experiencing total war for the first time. Materials were in ever-decreasing supply, and finances were increasingly constricted. There was no grandeur to trench warfare and the bloody stalemate of the Great War. Germany victory couldn't be guaranteed and in 1916 and 1917 it looked further away than ever. The Prussians had lost their pomp and the Germans had to create themselves a new symbol. Steeliness was the new focus brought to them by the stahlhelm (excuse the pun). Utilitarian necessity took precedence in the war which had destroyed Prussian pageantry and which would go on to destroy Imperial Germany.
A mixture of German pickelhauben and stahlhelme, 1916 (source)
The Germans had not been the first to adopt steel helmets: the French were the first to wear them into combat with their Adrian helmets of 1915. While of different shapes, the French, German and British helmets all came down to the same principle. They were all pressed from one disc of metal, and were undecorated. This is symptomatic of the wider shift in battle dress by all sides. Shades of khaki and grey became the norm, replacing the bright blues and reds that had featured in the colonial wars and were still being worn by some in 1914. Ceremonial dress remained, particularly for the upper ranks, to be worn on state occasions only but it no longer had a place on the battlefield. Camouflage had become key, as precise snipers and machine guns replaced smoking canons and conspicuous cavalry charges.

The First World War catalysed the modernisation and mechanisation of warfare as well as laying bare the inefficiencies of the forces from both sides. The introduction of steel helmets, to replace old leather ceremonial headwear, is illustrative of this. Necessity took priority, especially for the Germans, who would desperately have to try everything they could to avoid defeat. The era of celebrating Imperial Germany, and particularly Prussian military power, was long gone for the men stuck in the trenches of 1916. The German arrogance was subdued and its army reliant on the industrial production of weaponry and the hardiness of its men, much like their new stahlhelme which were industrially mass-produced for their strength alone.


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