To begin I will pose the question: How does a British Mk.1 “Tommy” helmet, issued to a soldier of the 91st Infantry Division upon his arrival in Europe; a member of an AEF Division made up of soldiers from 8 Western States and one territory, survive 5 months on the Western Front of France only to journey the approximate 5,500 miles to San Francisco where the Division is inactivated; Then, sometime in the last 100+ years, how did it find itself 2,200 miles away from there in Wabash, Indiana, where it eventually found its permanent home in our hometown museum? To fine out, let's do a little exploring.
Simply put, museums are the best! They are the conservator of a collective heritage, preserving the history of our society. They are a reminder of what daily life in our nation, community, and culture was like, and where, perhaps it is heading. Museums provide an outlet for stories that over time may have been forgotten or lost in translation. Most importantly, museums educate and inspire, which is what they did for me growing up. After all, they are partly one of the reasons that I became a history teacher. That, and parents who had a love of history, a teenage desire to be the next Indiana Jones, and a deep love of the mystery that trying to understand an artifact’s past creates.
You see, just like people, artifacts have a life and story of their own to tell. Many times, this story is passed down from generation to generation of those that have owned or possessed the item. Often, as the years pass, artifacts get sold, willed down or given to grandchildren, great grandchildren, or friends, and over time outlives those who may have known it’s true story. But sometimes, just sometimes, an item such as the one I am about to describe gets donated to a museum not unlike our own. When this happens, it then becomes the museum’s responsibility to rediscover the story and tell it so others may learn.
The Wabash County Museum holds a treasure trove of artifacts that, when you start to uncover their story, you begin to ask yourself, “How in the world did that get here?” One such item in our collection is a beautiful example of a World War I, US soldier’s helmet with a unit insignia (91st Infantry Division) painted on the front. You may be wondering what’s so unique about this helmet and what type of story does it have to tell? I would love to tell you.
When the United States entered World War I in the Spring of 1917, the US Army did not have a combat helmet for its troops. After all, only three years earlier in 1914 when the war began European armies themselves were going into the field of battle wearing only cloth, felt, or leather headgear that offered no protection from modern weapons. It was soon after the fighting started that the French army began seeing a large number of lethal head wounds inflicted by modern artillery weapons. Quickly realizing something needed to be done, the French became the first to introduce steel helmets to the battle front in 1915. It was around this same time that the British began to develop their own steel combat helmet.
The British design was developed and patented by inventor John Leopold Brodie (born Leopold Janno Braude in Riga, Latvia), and it offered advantages other country’s helmets did not. In what is referred to as a “masterpiece of simple design” by the British Imperial War Museum, it was constructed of one piece of thick steel and could be pressed, giving it added strength and making it simple to produce. A shallow circular crown, looking like an upside-down soup bowl, with a wide brim around the edge provided the wearer’s head protection from shrapnel exploding above the trenches. Attached buffer tubes inside were used to decrease the blunt trauma of a dent that might otherwise cause substantial wounding to the wearer’s skull, thus saving countless lives. Finally, the helmet was held onto the head by a leather liner and chinstrap.
In October of 1915, a change was made to the steel from which the helmets were produced. Moving forward, they would be made with a harder steel known as "Mangalloy" or “Hadfield’s Steel” consisting of 12% manganese content which virtually made the helmet impervious to shrapnel hitting a soldier from above. It also made the helmet non-magnetic. This new design had a narrower brim and a more domed crown. The helmet was then finished off with a matte khaki paint and then sand, sawdust, or crushed cork to give it a dull, non-reflective appearance. This model of helmet would be designated the British Mk.1 helmet and weighed in at approximately 2.4 pounds.
Often referred to as the “Brodie Helmet,” because of its designer, there were many more affectionate nicknames used for the British Mk.1 helmet. These are the “Shrapnel Helmet”, the “Tommy Helmet”, and the “Tin Hat”. Others include, the “Dishpan Hat, “Tin Pan Hat”, the “Washbasin”, and my personal favorite, the “Battle Bowler”,. The Germans often referred to it as, the “Salatschussel” which translates to the “salad bowl”. No matter what it was called, soon the British “Tommy” and the American “Doughboy” in the trenches became synonymous with the helmet that is now an iconic symbol of World War I.
As the first troops of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) arrived in France in the Fall of 1917 the US War Department had purchased 400,000 of the British Mk.1 steel combat helmets to outfit them. Although the US adopted M-1917 helmet was being massed produced in the States by early 1918, substantial numbers did not reach the Western Front until close to the Armistice. Until this point, US soldiers relied heavily upon the British Mk.1 helmet. It is one of these 400,00 helmets that is our museum helmet.
Now that we know a little about the helmet itself, let’s look further and see if we can discover some of its story. As stated earlier, painted in green on the front of the helmet is a “Fir Tree” with the number 91 in white stenciling on the tree. This identifies it as belonging to the 91st Infantry Division nicknamed the “Wild West Division”. The “Fir Tree” represents the unit’s traditional home of the Far West. Formed on August 5th, 1917 at Camp Lewis, near Tacoma, Washington, the 91st was populated by the Selective Service (the draft) with its members coming from the Territory of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming, and Utah. Following 10 months of training, the 91st departed for Europe and landed in France in July of 1918.
What many may not realize is that this train trip across the US continent by these young men instilled the patriotic unity which would ultimately help them defeat the Germans. They would have seen patriotic demonstrations in both large and small towns as they passed through. On the prairie there would have been mothers and fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers waving flags and wiping tears. By the time they reached their embarkation area at Camp Merritt, New Jersey, they must have felt like they were backed by an undivided nation. This trip would have also shown the high quality of soldier the Western United States was contributing to the war effort. It took a week to move the entire division by train from Camp Lewis to Camp Merritt where the men were given new equipment, outfits and two
pairs of hobnailed shoes. Final physical inspections were given. If anyone was found unfit, they were required to remain behind. Once all was in order, the division was loaded onto two giant ocean liners and on the 6th of July they headed overseas. The crossing took 12 days due to the constant zigzag course they had to take to avoid German submarines. On July 17, the division landed in England to thousands of cheering civilians and the divisions own band playing popular songs of the day. More days of travel across England to a new embarkation site and finally a short trip across the channel saw the 91st arrive in France where they would spend the month of August training for life on the Western Front. It would have been sometime while the division was here, at this training site, that they were issued their British Mk.1 helmets. The very helmet we have in our museum collection today.
It would have also been during this time that the division insignia would have been painted on our helmet. A common practice by many armies throughout history, this was no different during World War I. When US soldiers first arrived at the front, they would have seen other armies doing this to help identify the many different units and divisions one might encounter. Not only did soldiers paint their helmets, they also painted their insignia on all types of equipment from satchels to wagons. Surprisingly, as common a practice as it was, there were not standing orders for uniformity of this practice and so you can find all sorts of variations and placements within the same units and divisions.
It must also be noted at this time that we are not talking about painted camouflage on helmets. Although there is a directive from the German Army Chief of Staff Ludendorff (July 1918) which called for helmets to be painted in an attempt to reduce their glare, there is no evidence any Allied leaders issued any similar command. This is perhaps due to the fact that most Allied helmets were already a khaki or olive drab dark color and had been specifically treated to eliminate any possibility of glare coming off of them. One thing is certain, the discussion of painted camouflage on helmets in World War I is a blog all on its own. What we do know for sure is that after the war many an enterprising French citizen, and a few Allied soldiers, made extra cash painting up regular grey German helmets and leftover British/American helmets with camouflage and selling them to soldiers and war tourists in the early 1920’s. One such soldier was a young ambulance driver and budding artist name Walt Disney. Again, an in depth look at the selling of fake war trophies deserves a blog all on its own. Several generations have passed since our helmet was a lifesaving piece of equipment for its American “Doughboy” owner. During those generations it traveled even more and somehow found itself in our collection. We do not know when it arrived or who donated it to the Museum. Any accession tag or markings have since disappeared, possibly due to the moves of the museum between the floors of the old Memorial Hall, where the museum originally was housed, and its current location, a few blocks away. The only clues to the original owner are what appear to be two lightly painted and hard to see letters, an AY, on the underside of the helmet’s brim. If anything is known about our helmet, it’s that there are still many more secrets and stories it has to tell.
While on the Western Front, the 91st went on to distinguish itself in several campaigns before the Armistice in November, 1918. In September of that year (12th-16th), the 91st participated in their first operation, the St. Mihiel Offensive in Lorraine, France. Serving as part of the US Army’s V Corps, the 91st would fight in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive where it helped to destroy the German First Guard Division and take three enemy trench lines. With just two weeks left in until the end of World War I, the division, now part of the VII Corps, helped the French Sixth Army drive the Germans back eastward, across the Escaut River in what is known as the Ypres-Lys Offensive. For their bravery in action at the Lorraine, Meuse-Argonne, and Ypres-Lys campaigns, they would be awarded campaign streamers for the unit’s flag. In 1919 the division was sent back to the United States and was inactivated at the Presidio of San Francisco.