The Mark I helmet, a design by Latvian-born British inventor John L. Brodie (b. Leopold Janno Braude), was the standard steel helmet used by the British Empire troops in WW1, as well as by the American and Portuguese forces. It protected soldiers’ heads from shrapnel bullets, shell fragments, and other flying debris on the battlefield. Brodie’s design using hardened manganese steel (the type A) entered service in the fall of 1915. It was criticized widely. The improved Mark I version entered service in May 1916 and was used by a number of armies up through the 1960s.
As early as November 1915, British military authorities recognized that every soldier on the battlefield should be equipped with a helmet at all times. It took several months before the Mark I helmets could be manufactured in quantities sufficient to meet demand. In February 1916, for example, there were only enough helmets for the Canadian forces to equip about one in five soldiers. As a result, helmets had to be shared. When soldiers from the forward trenches were relieved they turned in their helmets for redistribution to the incoming men. By the end of 1916, the supply increased to the point that every soldier was issued a helmet, which he retained at all times. Nearly six million of these helmets were produced over their service life, including the Mark II and the Mark III, the latter being introduced in 1944.
The Mark I helmet weighed 1.3 lbs. With its wide brim, the helmet offered better protection from above, but it left the sides and back of the head exposed. The earliest Mark I helmets had a smooth paint finish, which reflected the sunlight, offering poor camouflage. Later helmets were finished with asbestos-based paint to give a rougher surface that reduced the reflection of light. It was also common for burlap or cloth covers to be fitted over top of the helmets, to hide the shine completely and break up the silhouette as well. This practice was officially sanctioned by military authorities, although it is unclear if the covers were factory-sewn or improvised closer to the front, possibly from sandbags. Nowadays surviving specimens of Mark I helmets are considered hazardous because of the asbestos.
The Mark I helmet reduced the rate of serious head injuries. A wartime survey revealed that among 960 wounded soldiers equipped with helmets admitted to a casualty clearing station during a 24-hour period, there were a total of seven head injuries. Before helmets had been introduced, a sample of this size would have included 30 head injuries.
When General Pershing’s staff was shopping for the equipment required by the American Expeditionary Force, they found that the U.S. Army stores and industries were unable to provide a great many necessary items quickly and in required quantities. One of these was steel helmets and the choice was between the French Adrian and the British Brodie patterns. Pershing chose the Brodie, for these reasons: the British had an inventory of some 400,000 immediately available, the Brodie was made from thicker and harder steel than the Adrian and American industry advised his staff that the Brodie, which was stamped from a single piece of metal, could be made inexpensively and even stronger with American steel. In U.S. service the helmet was designated the M-1917 and the American-made items were indeed slightly improved. Production was over 2.7 million and statistics indicated that the M-1917 offered slightly better protection than the Mark I. The M-1917 continued in U.S. service until replaced by the 2.85 lb. M-1941 at the start of WW2, and I was issued one of these in October 1968.
Source: Canadian War Museum