We are busy as usual at the Auction Gallery cataloguing and preparing for our January auctions and in particular our Military and medal sale on 25th January so today I thought I would talk about military helmets and in particular the British Brodie helmet.
A simple item that is mostly present at any Militaria auction (including our own on 25 January 2024) is the significant but often overlooked British Brodie helmet.
Sometimes, it conjures up comical images of 'Dad's Army' characters starring in often repeated programmes but at the time it was conceived Great Britain was in the grip of a deadly unprecedented war of national survival.
The opening phase of the Great War on the Western Front in 1914 involved manoeuvre and counter manoeuvre by the armies of Great Britain, France and Germany. However, as summer turned to autumn it became apparent that no swift victory was achievable and as the front line congealed trenches were dug that stretched from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. A new series of challenges were now faced by the British army and the drab khaki clad soldiers who occupied a deadly static 'invisible' battlefield. Here British Tommies mostly hid underground in the trenches and dug-outs as to show oneself to the enemy could rapidly result in death or injury. This new environment created many perils for the troops but the most alarming was a vulnerability to head wounds as soldiers when exposed could be hit by sniper rounds, random spent bullets and shrapnel from air bursting shells.
The British Tommy had gone to war with a rather smart cloth peaked cap and while this cap provided some cover from the elements it was useless against bullets or shrapnel. Clearly there was a need for some sort of standard issue steel headgear that might significantly reduce casualties in the trenches and in 1915 the War Office was attracted to a design by Latvian inventor John Leopold Brodie. His helmet design was based on a basin like shape with a shallow circular crown and a wide brim and it offered protection to the wearer's head mainly from the shrapnel shells bursting above the trenches. In profile there was no protection to the lower head or neck but on balance the helmet represented a reasonable compromise between armoured protection and the ability to see and hear unimpeded. After some changes to the original design and specification (including one from the famous Sheffield metallurgist Sir Robert Hadfield) the helmet went into full production. It proved to be comparatively cheap and easy to make from a one piece stamped steel pressing and by the end of the First World War in 1918 over seven million had been produced. It became immensely popular with British soldiers and was affectionately known as a 'Tommy helmet', 'tin hat' or 'battle bowler'. With its pleasing rounded shape, it became synonymous with the cheerful and plucky British Tommy and it became a symbol of unity that was worn by all ranks. Brodie's ubiquitous helmet had undoubtedly saved many lives and it was to see further action in the Second World War.