Construction of military sun helmets
By Peter Suciu and Stuart Bates
While the term “pith helmet” is commonly used to describe any sun or summer helmet, it isn’t exactly accurate. Pith has entered the lexicon much as “Xerox” means “photocopy” or “Kleenex” means “facial tissue” – at least in English. The difference is that while some corporate brands have become generic terms, pith is not a brand. Rather, it is a material.
Regardless, “pith helmet” has come to be used for the style of tropical helmets used by militaries around the world. In that sense, at least as in the style, the term has been accepted. It should be stressed, however, that not all “pith helmets” are constructed of “pith.” (It is worth noting that the German military never produced a true “pith helmet” in either world war – and the only sun helmets that were in fact “pith helmets” would have been those captured by British forces).
To understand this, it must be first recognized that many “sun helmets” are actually made of cork. More importantly, pith and cork are not one and the same – and despite some simplified explanations in books on military headgear, pith isn’t even a type of cork!
Pith vs. Cork
Pith and cork are dissimilar in where they are grown, how they are harvested, and even in the part of the plant from which the materials come. The only thing in common is that both are plant-based. Beyond this, pith and cork are quite different.
Pith, also known as “medulla,” is a tissue in the stems of vascular plants, and comes from the center or spongy inner layer of the rind. The type of pith used specifically in “pith helmets” comes from the sola plant, also known as the aeschynomeneaspera. The entire plant is utilized to obtain the material,
This is quite different from cork, which is prime-subset of bark tissue that is removed from the outside of the cork oak tree. Thus, the two materials have virtually nothing in common, except again being plant-based. To add to the confusion, “cork oak” has nothing to do with “cork trees,” which do have a corky bark but aren’t, in fact, used in cork production!
Cork is stripped from the outside of cork oak tree. Cork oak trees can live for 200 years or more, but must be at least 25 years old before the cork can be stripped. Subsequent harvests can then occur again only every 10 years. The first two harvests from a tree typically produce poorer quality cork. Generally, quality improves over time.
Because of the long growth cycle, conservation is key in cork production. Therefore, cork “forests” are maintained, ensuring that species living in the forests are protected by default.
AND WHAT ABOUT THE HELMETS?
While helmets are obviously made both of pith and cork, it is interesting that the term “pith helmet” became the generic name for this particular headgear. The reason goes back to the point of origin of the helmets – namely India.
The reason for the confusion can be summed up quite easily. The helmet pattern was born in India in the years preceding the Indian Mutiny of 1857. From that, the name stuck and became the generic term for sun helmets.
Why sola pith was used can be summed up by geography as much as anything else. Aeschynomeneaspera — sola pith — is native to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam. It is an aquatic plant and considered a minor weed as it typically can spread into rice paddies in the regions.
Fortunately, a use was found for the fast growing, quick spreading plant. It was used to make hats, which, of course, evolved into the early sun helmets used by the British forces in India, including the Honourable East India Company. The helmets proved ideal for the hot conditions in India and within 20 years sun helmets were adopted by the British Army.
However, British hatters had long been supplying headgear to the military. The biggest manufacturers included Ellwood and Hawkes. They entered the market making helmets with cork shells. The cork came primarily from Portugal and Spain, with a bit less from Italy. Therefore, by the outbreak of World War I, the vast majority of British-made helmets — as well as those of France, Germany and Italy — were made of cork.
Other Materials: Straw, Felt, and Fiber
It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss every variation of either pith or cork helmets, except to say that these two materials were widely used and in the general sense it was very one of regional preferences. As a result, there developed a European and an Indian manufacturing industry for the production of sun helmets used by the military as well as civilian populations alike.
When wartime came, helmets that were once donned by civilians were often offered for use by soldiers. This is notable in the various Indian pattern sun helmets that were used in the first half of the 20th century by various nations.
What is also important to understand is that due to distances and wartime shortages, some materials were in short supply. During both world wars this included cork.
Straw was a common substitute material, one that was used by the British in the production of its Wolseley pattern helmets during World War I. It was also used by German and Austrian hat makers. While the Central Powers had less need for tropical headgear as it was impossible to supply those forces already cut off in Africa, Germans and Austrians did fight with their Ottoman allies in the Balkans and the Middle East — and here straw tropical helmets did see use.
As a cost saving initiative during the interwar era, various nations experimented with various fiber helmets. These had the look of traditional cork made helmets, but were actually stamped into a shape. The German Kriegsmarine introduced a fiber helmet in the mid-1930s, but by the outbreak of war, had adopted a cork helmet that was likely heavily influenced by the French Model 1931 helmet.
Due to shortages of cork during the war, the Germans produced these helmets out of straw for the Afrikakorps. Externally, they look quite similar to those made of cork. It does seem that there was an overlap of production as well, so perhaps individual batches were filled as the material allowed.
By the middle of WWII, cork gave way to the felt helmets — which were worn by the British and Germans, alike. An interesting side point to the felt helmets is that these were first worn by the Metropolitan Army of Portugal and were intended to be worn domestically. During and after WWI, however, they were worn for service in Africa.
It is possible that the British and Germans alike saw the potential for felt helmets. Both countries had long-established hat industries with the skills and machinery to produce felt hats and helmets. Some of the earliest British-made sun helmets of the 1860s (those by Ellwood) were made of felt, so in that respect, the industry went full circle.
The shortage of cork, and the complexity of producing weaved straw helmets, would certainly explain the introduction of the so-called “second pattern” German tropical helmet. The production years of these do overlap with the canvas-covered cork/straw helmets but that could be a result of German planning and efficiency.
Likewise, externally, the British felt helmets are indistinguishable from the cork helmets. But based on the dates in these helmets, it appears that there are few, if any, felt helmets were produced earlier than 1942. Similarly, few, if any, cork helmets are dated later than 1943 (at least until after the war when the Royal Marines readopted the helmets). This evidence confirms felt —at least with the British — was meant as an alternative material to cork. While cost certainly played an issue, the availability of cork was likely a factor.
Various Indian patterns (with such colorful names as the Cawnpore pattern, Bombay Bowler and Aden Pattern) were used alongside other civilian helmets. Thus, during WWII, the British used cork, sola pith, and felt helmets. This also includes the Indian-made Khaki Sola Pith Hat (KSPH), which was meant to be the 1938 replacement to the more expensive Wolseley pattern (although that latter helmet did remain in use throughout the war). In that case, it was probably easier to supply troops headed to Africa and the Middle East with British-made helmets rather than those coming from India.
Adding to the mix is that the KSPH was used by the British forces in mainland Greece and Crete, where many of these sola pith helmets were captured by the Germans. Therefore, these captured KSPH helmets were the only true “pith helmets” to be donned by the Germans during WWII!
The Sun Set of the Sun Helmet
In the years leading up to WWII, the Japanese military adopted a sun helmet similar in shape to its Type 90 steel helmet. These went through a complex evolution of materials and patterns. Originally, the shell material was a combination of bamboo, cotton wadding, and thin balsa sheeting. Later helmets had straw bodies covered in fabric much like the German helmets. Other materials utilized by the Japanese included “Sanda tape” and rubberized cloth to provide a waterproof helmet.
During WWII, the American military also utilized sun helmets. These included tens of thousands that worn by Marines during training. These pressed fiber helmets remained in use for decades and can still be found on USMC rifle ranges today.
After the War, the American military was far from the only nation to utilize fiber helmets. The French military experimented with a variety of waterproof materials including a rubberized cardboard. This evolution led (in part) to the fiber helmets utilized by the Vietnamese military.
While sun helmets remain in use around the world as ceremonial helmets (not to mention by various police forces), few are actually cork or pith. Today plastic, fiberglass, and other composite materials can be easily shaped and molded into helmets that look good, protect the wearer from the sun – and after all isn’t that what it is all about?
Peter Suciu & Stuart Bates are the authors of the books, Military Sun Helmets of the World and The Wolseley Helmet in Pictures. They run the website www.MilitarySunHelmets.com, where they continue to explore the origins and evolution of tropical headdress.