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Bilston-made helmets saved lives of thousands of soldiers

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: June 16, 2014

The band of the 5th South Staffs playing in the ruins of Ypres, all wearing Brodie helmets

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IT became a national symbol, the distinctive steel helmet worn by British soldiers in both world wars, but few today realise that the headgear that saved countless lives was made here in the Black Country.

When the First World War broke out in the summer of 1914, none of the belligerent nations issued their troops with protective headgear as standard. Most soldiers on all sides, like the British tommies, went to war wearing cloth caps, which offered no protection at all.

The detriment of this became more apparent as the nature of the fighting changed into trench warfare. Then the head became the most exposed part of the body, the greatest risk coming not from bullets but from shrapnel, particularly once gunners developed the technique of indirect fire, exploding their shells above the trenches so that shrapnel rained down on those below.

Even the Germans' picklehaube was next to useless in these conditions; the emblematic spiked helmets were made of leather and offered little protection. At the time Germany imported much of its leather from South America and with supplies cut off by the Royal Navy, the German Army was reduced to issuing felt and even paper picklehaubes.

Army chiefs on all sides grew alarmed at the high number of head wounds suffered by the troops but it was the French who were first to experiment with protective headgear. French infantrymen wore a kepi but in 1915 some troops were given a steel skullcap to wear beneath their caps. These were soon replaced by the distinctive Adrian helmet, named after its designer, Intendant-General August-Louis Adrian, with its shallow crest designed to deflect shrapnel. Cheap and easy to manufacture, it slashed the number of fatalities caused by head wounds.

The British and Germans were developing their own steel helmets at around the same time. The British design was patented by John Leopold Brodie in 1915. Unlike the Adrian helmet, the Brodie was made from a single piece of pressed steel, giving it greater strength, and it was also made from higher grade steel. Its famous shape, similar to the medieval "kettle hat", was designed to protect from overhead shrapnel, although they could also withstand a .45 calibre pistol bullet fired from 10 feet. Tommies nicknamed them "tin hats" or "battle bowlers", while to the Germans they were salatschüssel, or salad bowls.

With the design settled upon, the War Office had to turn to someone who could produce high numbers of the helmets and quickly. They came to the industrial heartland of the nation, to the Black Country, where dozens of "metal bashers" were already geared to the war effort. The contract went to one of the most famous names in Black Country engineering, Joseph Sankey and Sons of Bilston. They started production in October 1915, initially making 5,000 a week but gradually increasing to 75,000 a week.

Soldiers began receiving the helmets in 1916, but at first they were in short supply and so were issued to trench stores as opposed to individual soldiers, the idea being that a soldier would receive a helmet when going into the trenches, and hand it back in to the stores when finishing his term of duty.

The Brodie helmet was first used in battle in April 1916, at the Battle of Saint Eloi, but it was not until the summer of 1916 that there were enough helmets for them to be issued generally. Interestingly, when Winston Churchill served in France with the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers, from January to May 1916, he chose to wear an Adrian helmet, which had been a gift from his French counterparts.

When the USA entered the war in 1917 they bought 400,000 helmets from the British before they began to make their own Brodies under licence.

By the end of the First World War around 7.5 million Brodie helmets had been made, with 5 million of them produced by Sankeys.

With modifications in design, the Brodie helmet remained the standard issue for British and Commonwealth forces until it was replaced in 1944 by the significantly different Mk.III helmet, known as the "turtle" due to it shape.

Did your grandparents or someone you know make Brodie helmets at Sankeys? Contact editor@blackcountry bugle.co.uk with any stories or pictures you may have.

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