Monday, April 28, 2008

British Mk 1 Steel Helmet: The Great War

Behold the helmet that won two world wars:

...despite the fact that the British Mk 1 and its progeny the Mk 2 (et al) are so doggone boring. Certainly not particularly innovative or exciting, this helmet is poorly balanced, of no protection to the temples or brain stem of the wearer, and with a dreadfully fragile one point suspension mounting that, if broken will render the helmet nothing more than a shallow basin to catch the former wearer's blood in.

But, nonetheless, this is the "tin derby" which much delayed the sunset of the British Empire

That said, the Mk 1 is a helmet that tugs at the heartstrings and prompts the patriotic pride of much of the english speaking world.

So I'll try to give it its due.

Costing less than $2.00 (including liner) to produce and weighing 1 pound eleven ounces this was Britian's entry into the head protection sweepstakes of 1917.

Prior to the development and adoption of this helmet front line British Commonwealth troops, like everyone else, were attempting to fight the Great War wearing non-ballistic headgear including these natty soft caps.Nice to look at, though shrapnel easily ignores any protective value of wool.

A Mr. Brodie, in 1915 developed the helmet which would symbolize the tenacity and elan of the Commonwealth soldier for generations; the Mk 1.

Side view

Top view, note the single rivet that holds the chin strap and entire suspension in place. One false move and it's "1-2-3 and your hat blew off!"

Here's the oilcloth and felt liner. Note the leather strap that bisects the bowl and the single rivet that holds it in place. If that strap breaks (as straps are wont to do) Tommy Atkins will go rushing forth resembling Brainiac more than a well-equipped soldier.

Speaking of cartoons...

One of my favorite cartoonists is Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, the man who did for the British Tommy what Bill Mauldin did for the American G.I.

Here are two takes on the Mk 1 from the pen of the good Captain:

(do click on the images for clarity)

And now the details

This whole arrangement seems a little bit over engineered to me. We'll see the same setup in the American M1917 in a later post.

The leather band conceals rubber tubing which provides a shock absorbing 5/8 of an inch space between the shell of the helmet and the skull of the wearer. This spacing was quite meager as Bashford Dean notes in "Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare":

"The demerit of this metal was its liability to indent deeply, for this would be apt to cause fatal injury to the wearer."

But make no mistake, this helmet was saving lives.

Including, lets hope, this fellow's.

Although this helmet and the American M1917 often get confused, its really quite easy to tell them apart if you know what to look for.

The Mk 1 chinstrap bails are much thinner wire than are the bails on the M1917, also the rivets on the American helmet are peened and the British (pictured) are split.

The rim weld on the American helmet does not have this long overlap that characterizes the Mk1.

And, finally, the American helmet was dusted with sawdust while the paint was still wet as a simple anti-glare measure, where the poor Tommy had to carry a load of gravel around on his lid. "Heavy Infantry" perhaps?

So, all in all, despite my misgivings, here's a rousing vote of confidence from those who wore it.


Mk 1 British infantry helmet.
Acquired 1980, Lansing Michigan.
Purchase price :$32.00
Original in all respects.
Condition: excellent

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