Straight to the point: It’s an Indo-Persian influence
by Peter Suciu
Militaria, much like military history, remains full of mysteries. While many historic relics, like firearms, have a clearly defined evolution, this is not the case with all items. For example, while it is known – in broad strokes – how and more importantly why camouflage was developed, other pieces remain clouded.
It is known, at least by militaria collectors, that many nations utilized the spike helmet – or as it is commonly known the “Pickelhaube” or “pointy hat.” Even the most advanced Pickelhaube collector cannot offer any solid reasoning for the spike on top of the helmets they so ardently seek. Ever since the U.S. Doughboys went “over there” during World War I and came home with spiked helmets that the Germans used, little explanation for the origin has been sought.
As for why so many nations – including the United States, Great Britain, Spain, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Argentina, Mexico and a host of other countries – used the spike helmet, this is largely chalked up to copying the military might of Germany following the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). In truth, however, there is little empirical proof that the various nations of the world actually copied the Prussian design.
A close look at the various patterns does show that some helmets are clearly copies of the German Pickelhaube – and many were even been made in Germany, such as those used in South America. Many of the patterns, however, have little in common apart from an actual spike.
As for the rational that it was awe of Germany is largely a modern misunderstanding. There would be little reason, for example, why Great Britain with her worldwide empire, would copy Prussian military uniforms. If anything, the British under Queen Victoria were not entirely fond of Prussian militarism, and certainly didn’t attempt to copy the Pickelhaube!
Origins of the Spiked Helmet
Why did the British adopt a spiked helmet at all? Why did so many other nations do so, as well? The reasoning isn’t entirely apparent, but military fashion was changing in the middle of the 19th century.
The origin of the spiked helmet is a bit confusing. Several sources note that Russia introduced the helmet around 1841. An oft-repeated story suggests that when Prussian King Frederick William IV visited his cousin Czar Nicholas I of Russia in St. Petersburg, he saw the first of these helmets worn by Russian soldiers. However, Czar Nicholas I can’t be credited with this design.
Supposedly, the Russian spike helmets were based on traditional Russian helmets used in the Middle Ages. The design of those helmets, though, was deeply influenced by Tartar and Indo-Persian helmets known as the “Kulah Khud.” This influence was seen throughout the sub-continent, with groups such as the Rajput of India adopting a helmet with a spike in 13th century and similar designs moved westward with the Turks and Mongols. Various Middle Eastern armies, including the Mamelukes, used pointed style – if not exactly spiked – helmets.
From the 13th to the 19th century, the Kulah Khud helmets, and various helmets influenced by its design, remained in use throughout Central Asia. The helmet’s prevalence in India and Persia by the end of the 19th century is likely why much of Europe, as well as North and South America, adopted this “pointy hat.” The Indo-Persian influence on Russia and Great Britain occurred as both nations eyed Central Asia for their respective empires.
The British and Spike Helmets
The British had gained control of India from its French and Dutch rivals at the tail end of a global war that was started as the result of the American Revolution. During the subsequent wars in India – from the First Anglo-Mysore War in the 1760s to the Second Anglo-Sikh War in 1849 – the British brought the Subcontinent under its rule.
Spikes continued to be been worn on these later pattern Indo-Persian-styled Kulah Khud helmets used by the Mughal Empire and other Indian princely states throughout this era. It was during this time that the British in India adopted the Indian-designed “pith helmet” – later to be known as the Foreign Service Helmet. Soon after, hat makers in the UK began to produce these helmets, but the British hatters utilized Portuguese cork instead of sola pith. The Foreign Service Helmet was soon standardized in the basic shape that was based on the British 1870 pattern heavy cavalry or dragoon helmet. However, instead of long colorful plumes these were originally worn with a spike on the top.
These Foreign Service Helmet served as the basis for the Home Service Helmet, which was to remain the main dress helmet from 1878 until 1914. As these helmets featured spikes and regimental helmet plates, it has been suggested by collectors – and even some authors – that the British had, in essence, “copied” the Pickelhaube.
While it is true that the helmets bear a passing resemblance, the overall shape – and even construction – of the helmets differs. The German Pickelhaube was made of polished black leather, whereas the British Home Service Helmet was made of pressed felt. Because the body color was a very dark blue, these are called “blue cloth helmets.” American helmets actually of the same period adhere more to the shape and construction of the British pattern than to that of the German design. Yet, to confuse matters, there were some American militia units that utilized leather helmets of the German design.
The Russian Connection
The other part of this story concerns the Russian origins of the actual Pickelhaube. While stories abound that Czar Nicholas I was given an old Tatar-used helmet with spike that was found by a young girl, these may or may not be true.
What is fact is that the Russians had as mixed a history in Persia as the British in India. From 1651 to 1828, the Russians fought five wars against Persia in an attempt to obtain control over territories in the Caucasus, Armenia, and Georgia. As a result of these wars, Persia was, at times, a client state of Russia.
Just as the British in India adopted some Indian customs, so too, was Russia influenced by Persia. Moreover, during the Middle Ages, Russia had been invaded by a host of eastern powers including the Tatars who wore metal helmets with spikes. Coupled together, it seems logical that the Russian spiked helmet – known early on as the Helmet of Yaroslav Mudry (a grand price of Veliky Novgorod and Kiev) was meant to be a throwback to Russia’s glorious past when it saw its first true expansion and growing power.
All this combined with a sudden, renewed interest across Europe in all things medieval. Following the Napoleonic Wars, Europe actually enjoyed in a state of relative peace, apart from a few brief conflicts. In fact, the greater concern in Europe was revolution. It seems more than a coincidence that this era corresponds with a time when the greatness of the Middle Ages was once again appreciated.
By the time that the two great powers of Britain and Russia met in battle during the Crimean War in 1854, each nation had already been exposed to helmets with spikes. Even before the Indian Mutiny sent tens of thousands of British soldiers to India, the British Army certainly encountered the Russian helmets. Surviving examples of these helmets are now in several British military museums, and thus it didn’t need to wait until Prussia’s victory over France in 1871 and the proclaiming of the German Empire for the British to be awakened to spikes on helmets!
In fact, by 1870, sun helmets with spikes were already in use in British India, while, ironically, the helmets were largely taken out of service in Russia. Why exactly the Russians decided to stop using the helmets is as much a mystery as why spikes came into popularity in the first place. One possible explanation is simple enough: Czar Nicholas I, who had liked the design, died in 1855. His successor, Czar Alexander II, was a reformer and modernizer. Perhaps, he felt the spike helmets were too backward-looking for an empire that was trying to modernize. This would also explain why the new Germany, which looked to former Teutonic glory, may have sought a spiked helmet as a connection to the past.
In the end, it may not matter much, but a few facts should be clear – namely that military fashion often trumps practicality. The spike simply hit the point at the right time.
Peter Suciu has collected helmets and headgear for more than 35 years. He continues to seek out unique militaria, and offers some of it for sale on his dealer portal, PlundererPete.com.