The first modern steel combat helmet: the French ‘Adrian’

by Peter Suciu



The earliest Adrian style helmets were
painted in horizon blue. By 1917, however,
the common paint finish was more of a
matte grey blue. This is often found painted
over the original horizon blue. Model 1915
helmets consist of three stamped pieces: the
visor (two pieces) and the crown. The comb
was attached with rivets.

Ninety years ago, as the “Great European War” was in its second year, solders on both sides of the line were forced to dig in. Quick victory was already a distant memory for either side. Rapid movement and flanking maneuvers were but a dream. After the initial sweeping deployment of soldiers, now seemingly endless artillery barrages rained down on troops taking shelter in trenches and dugouts. Head wounds became commonplace. French kepis (fabric caps with leather visors) did little to protect the wearer.

Left: This classic style French cavalry helmet only changed little from the era of the Emperor Napoleon, and was widely used during the reign of Napoleon III and into the French Republic following the Franco-Prussian War. Right: The so-called “Soup Bowl” skullcap was made to fit the shape of the soldier’s head, these skullcaps were intended to be worn inside of the French kepi. Imperial War Museum

    Prior to the outbreak of WWI, helmets worn by the French army served a ceremonial use and were considered a mere accoutrement of the uniforms of the day. The horrors of trench warfare in Europe, though, changed all that as ghastly head wounds convinced planners that protective headgear was required.


BACKGROUND OF THE MODERN HELMET

    Thick metal helmets were used since ancient times to offer protection to their wearers in combat. Various armies of the Classical Age can easily be identified by their distinctive helmets. During the medieval period, helmets became more of a symbol of honor as their protective qualities were overshadowed by the advent of firearms on the battlefield.

    As the armies of Europe loaded the guns of August in 1914, the helmets in use had become truly decorative pieces and offered limited protection to the wearer. Europe was facing the first major conflict after a long period of relative peace. The leaders of the day were unprepared for what truly awaited.

    While the British army had learned hard lessons from recent colonial conflicts (including the Boer War), France mobilized an army wearing almost anachronistic uniforms that were a hold- over from the Second Empire and included many gilded helmets for mounted personnel troops as well as some infantry personnel. These chromium-plated helmets featuring bright colored feathers and plumes were clearly holdovers from a more chivalrous time. But, the bright colored uniforms would soon give way to more subdued horizon blue. At about the same time, the steel helmet re-emerged as an essential part of field equipment.

 
 
 
The most common French WWI helmet
badge was the flaming bomb (Top left). French
artillery insignia consisted of a pair of
crossed cannons behind the flaming
bomb (Top right). It was used to denote infantry.
The helmet badge for engineers (Bottom left)
featured a First Empire-styled helmet and
breastplate. The letters "RF" signify the French
Second Republic. Because the insignia was easily
removed, adding a nation’s own insignia was
not difficult. The lion’s head (bottom right) was
used by Belgian troops.

THE ADRIAN HELMET INTRODUCED
    When WWI began, the appearance of the French army of the Third Republic closely resembled the fighting force of Napoleon III that met the Prussian army on the French frontier in 1871. Whereas other nations had begun to modernize with drab field uniforms, the French soldiers still wore the Model 1877 dark blue greatcoat along with an updated version of the bright red Model 1867 trousers. The French army marched into the slaughter of the First Marne with a uniform more fitting to a bygone age.

    Following this military disaster, the French army underwent a rapid regrouping that quickly replaced the aged uniform with something more fitting of the day. The M1914 uniform—now easily recognized for its sky blue color—would see service for the remainder of the war and in the peace that followed. Combined with the first steel helmet, this silhouette would become the defining symbol of the French army.

    Along with the updated uniform, the soldiers received a new version of the French kepi, but it would soon give way to a more protective type of headgear. The first attempt to provide some protection came in the form of small metal plates and bowls that were worn under the traditional uniform kepi. There is a common rumor that soldiers even wore soup bowls under their hats to offer some protection, but these are probably confused with an actual steel skull cap that was put into service by General Adrian in 1914. In fact, it is more likely that instead of bowls being used to provide protection, these uncomfortable metal skullcaps served as bowls for the soldiers’ soup!

 

The liner system of the French M15 “Adrian”
helmet consisted of six leather tongues and
corrugated metal band. This was in place to
provide some shock protection to the wearer.
The “one-piece” liner (Top left) with seven tongues
is referred to as the “first pattern.” The style
that consists of a separate band with six
attached fingers (Top right) is referred
to as a “second pattern” liner. The color of
second pattern liners can range from brown
to light brown (right) and even appear
black.

    The fact remained that many fatal head wounds were caused not by bullets or blows to the head, but rather by small and low velocity fragments. Any protection at all besides a cloth cap was seen as an improvement with many lives potentially being saved. The priority, therefore, became to provide troops with helmets.

    In 1915, an official protective helmet was introduced and it has been forever tied to its creator, Intendant-General August-Louis Adrian. His design was based on helmets used by Parisian firefighters. His creation resulted in a rather complex helmet that consisted of several individual stamped pieces that were riveted and/or welded together.

    The actual design comprised an oversized skullcap, a two-piece brim leather band with additional fingers to provide padding that were held together by a drawstring to add support for the wearer. This rested on a tin corrugated metal sheet that was designed to provide both additional ventilation and suspension while the leather chinstrap was attached to a pair of fixed D-rings on each side of the helmet.

    The actual thickness of the steel of the M15 was a mere 0.7mm, which was actually even lighter than the contemporary fire helmets, but still provided a great service to the wearer. Five factories began manufacturing these helmets, and by the end of 1915 more than three million helmets were produced and distributed to the French army.


  
Left. The French supplied their Russian allies with Adrian
helmets during the First World War. These were used following
the Russian Civil War by the Soviet Red Army, complete with
new “Red Star” insignia. The Soviets produced their own
domestic version of this helmet before adopting their own
designs.
At right is the Finnish M-17 “Sohlberg,” which was
based on the French “Adrian.” This helmet was designed for
use by the Russian army in the First World War and was
produced at the Sohlberg factory but the revolutions of 1917
resulted in an independent Finnish state. The Reds in both the
Finnish and Russian civil wars may have used these helmets
in small numbers, along with a Russian-produced version of
the same helmet.

The M15 “Adrian” was introduced with the same blue-gray finish as the uniform, and beginning in late 1915 the French also introduced a fabric cover in light blue or khaki. While these covers were issued in large numbers, few remain today and these have been heavily faked throughout the years. The French army actually ordered that the covers be abandoned during the summer of 1916. It was the medical department’s belief that scraps of the cloth, which was quite filthy due to the conditions of the trench warfare, might possibly carry into the head wounds and cause serious medical complications.

ADRIANS IN OTHER COLORS
    Later helmets were issued from the factory with a matte gray-blue finish that was darker than the earlier color. Because of the volume of helmets made throughout the war, and the fact that paint was not readily available at the front, it is common to find helmets in either shade today.

    French Foreign Legionnaires and other colonial troops also used a variety of brown and khaki painted helmets. It is important for collectors to know that these were never painted khaki in the factory. Therefore, any such helmet should show evidence of either the horizon blue or the matte gray-blue finish under the khaki finish.

    While not common, some troops did take it upon themselves to camouflage their helmets with splashes of brown, green and even black paint. Though there is some photographic evidence of this practice, few authentic examples survived. Helmets with camouflage patterns should be considered extremely rare today.

    Because the Adrian helmets were popular with various Allied nations during the war and even in the ensuing peace, examples will show up in a variety of other colors. The most common—after the French gray-blue variations—being the brown of the Belgian army. The Russians also used a brownish khaki color while the Italians and Romanians used a gray-green color.

HELMET INSIGNIA
    From the introduction of the M15 Adrian, the helmet was issued with a metal insignia that denoted the arm of service. Originally there were nine emblems for the Adrian helmet but this number later rose to twelve by the end of WWI. These insignia were stamped plates and consisted of a number of devices including a flaming bomb for infantry, crossed cannons for artillery, a First Empire styled helmet and breastplate for engineers, a crescent moon for Zouave regiments, and an anchor for navy. All of these featured the letters “RF” for the French Second Republic. The original designs lacked these letters, which appear to have been a last minute addition. It is believed by most experts, though,  that no actual emblems were ever produced without the “RF” letters. Any that are encountered should be treated as “fantasy” items.

    Emblem variations do exist, however, and collectors are urged to do the appropriate research.  It must be stressed that this emblem type was used until 1937 when a new version was introduced that used the same symbols but on a smaller circular base. Though it is common to see the circular base emblems show up on Adrians on Internet auctions and at militaria shows, these should not be considered Great War era helmets.

    The use of these badges may seem like another anachronistic element of the French uniform, but it did serve an important role. “Considering the artistic complexity of the standard issue French Adrian helmet, I think it fair to say that putting separate branch insignia on the fronts was indeed a French military fashion statement,” emphasizes Dr. Robert Clawson, emeritus professor of European Military Studies from Kent State University and noted military headgear collector. “It certainly didn’t contribute to the effectiveness of the helmet. It must be said that the helmet itself was greatly admired for the look of the thing, not for its effectiveness.”

    In addition to badges, French helmets are occasionally encountered with painted insignia on the front. While other nations—most notably Italy—used stencils or even rough painted symbols on their helmets, it was extremely rare to find this style of symbol on a true French helmet. Again, helmets found decorated in this manner should be viewed with suspicion.

    Less conventional insignia is encountered and, although rare, includes stars representing a general that are affixed to the front of the helmet along with a brass chinstrap. A more common, but still unusual, item found on some helmets is a gilt brass plate worn over the front visor of an Adrian helmet. Bearing the inscription “Soldat de la grand guerre 1914-1918,” these were presented to veterans in the years following WWI. These items are occasionally seen for sale on Internet auctions but, like other rare items, fakes have begun to surface.



A comparison of the French M15 "Adrian" and later M26 helmet.
 Note that the later version helmet was produced as one large
stamped piece, rather than three segments attached together.
Likewise, the later version badges were smaller with the
insignia placed on a round disk.

VARIANTS AND ‘OTHER NATION’ ADRIANS
    It is also important to note that there were many variations and experimental helmets that were used by the French army during WWI. Because of their rarity, and the fact that these are not true “Adrians,” it is beyond the scope of this article to include them. Beware, though, many dubious examples of rare variants have surfaced in recent years. Collectors are urged to do research before making any purchases of experimental variants as they should be considered extremely exceptional.

    Among the more unusual of these helmets were those that featured a front face visor. Throughout the war, various attempts were made by the French Bureau of Inventions to offer face protection and most of these were used in conjunction with the Adrian. Major Polack of the French army designed a series of visors to provide protection to the wearer’s eyes that could be attached to the rim of a helmet. Because of the added weight and limited benefits, these were soon removed from service.

    The Dunand brothers worked independently throughout 1916-1917 and produced a Franco-American helmet that eventually saw limited service in 1918. It was first manufactured in America and then produced in France. Unlike Polack’s helmet, this experimental model did not initially utilize the basic Adrian design but, instead, relied on an original design that no doubt limited the production capabilities. A modified version built around the Adrian was also produced. Both designs incorporated a visor perforated by numerous small holes much like a cooking colander.

    Additional varieties of face protection were used throughout the war. These often consisted of a face mask of chainmail  or slotted, metal eyepieces. Most of these designs greatly inhibited the wearer’s vision. An added hindrance was the inability to wear a gas mask with these helmets. Therefore, none of these helmets were ever produced in vast numbers.

    The basic Adrian remained the standard helmet—not only of the French but also of various other nations. It became an extremely popular helmet in the trenches and was used by the Russian, Serbian, Romanian, Belgian, and Italian armies. In addition, it was provided in great numbers to Czech and Polish volunteer forces.

    Each of these armies utilized their own unique badge, but it is the Belgians who used the helmets in the greatest numbers after the French. These helmets featured the Flanders lion head crest while the helmet was painted a dark brown to match the Belgian uniform.

    Additionally African-American troops of the French 157th Division wore the Adrian with the French infantry insignia along with their otherwise traditional American uniform. These helmets should not, however, be confused with other Adrian helmets that were used by American ambulance drivers that featured an American-flag design as part of the helmet’s badge.

    It is worth noting that while the typical French emblems have not been faked in large numbers, those of the other Allied powers are considered less common and thus have been more commonly reproduced. The most common of these high-end fakes are those of Imperial Russia. Russian forces serving in France were issued Adrian helmets, while additional Adrians were supplied to the Czar’s forces at home. The emblem of the Imperial Russian forces has been heavily faked and any of these encountered should be considered fakes unless you are dealing with an experienced and reputable dealer.

    When the Great War finally came to an end in 1918 the influence of the Adrian would carry throughout Europe and the world. Many nations in the post-war period adopted the style of helmets of the victorious French army, at least until they could develop their own helmet design.

    The new nations of Poland and Yugoslavia relied on the Adrians, as did Romania and Italy. Even the fledgling Soviet government continued to use the captured Adrian helmets (and were believed to have produced their own version domestically) with a tin enameled Red Star throughout the 1920s.

    The legacy of the M15 Adrian lived on as the French continued to rely on this proven style of helmet. The Adrian was modernized slightly and updated in 1926, but like the outdated equipment of 1914, this next generation helmet would be ill suited to the needs of combat in 1940.

COLLECTING WWI ADRIAN HELMETS
    The French M15 has become, like other helmets, a niche collectible. A decade ago, these helmets were well under $100, even in mint conditions but prices have increased and collectors should be prepared to see nice examples well above $250 or even $300 for infantry versions and considerably more for rarer versions such as those used by colonial forces.

    While not possessing the allure of the German steel helmets or Pickelhaube (spiked helmets), these helmets still evoke images of a bygone day and serve as reminders of the horrific conflict. As the 100th anniversary of the Great War approaches, the M15 helmets will likely continue to appreciate in value. “The French helmets did not come to be considered very good until the last 10 years with the take-off of all things WWI,” emphases Karl Kithier, a veteran militaria collector who has more than 25 years of helmet experience. While German items have always been very popular, Karl doesn’t equate popularity with collectibility. “I think Adrian helmets are very collectible.”

    Unlike the German helmets, these typically did not migrate to America as war trophies of the returning “Doughboys” but were actually sold off as surplus by the French government when the new model was introduced in 1926. As a result, it is common to see Adrian helmets with post-World War I liners and a newer coat of paint or two. Though these possibly saw service in the trenches, it is unlikely that production runs of the helmet continued in mass during the post-war years until the 1926 model was introduced. Nevertheless, collectors view these helmets as “post-war.”

    However the M15 is still a rather common item. Collectors are advised to look for complete helmets with original liners and chinstraps and free of rust and damage. Helmets in better condition will go up in value while damaged helmets and those missing badges or liners probably won’t appreciate much due to the large number that are still available. As with all military collectibles the rarer pieces, such as those with the Zouave badges, helmet covers, or with the sand-brown finish should be bought from reputable dealers.

    The French M15 helmet was issued in the millions and provided limited protection to its wearers but it was better than nothing. While the German helmet might be the more desirable collectible today, it is hard to argue that the Adrian isn’t a very fine looking helmet. It is a piece of history that belongs in every military headgear collection.

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