Just about every Doughboy who went to France aspired to return home with two things: a Pickelhaube and a Luger. There was no wonder why. Both items were very distinctly German and so had become iconic in newspaper and magazine cartoons as well as propaganda posters, such as the famous ‘Destroy This Mad Brute’, originally released by the British but also used in 1917 by the U.S. Army. Also, there seemed to be an endless flow of photographs of the Kaiser wearing a Pickelhaube – he was so fond of his uniforms.
The Pickelhaube, which literally translates to “pointed head cover” in English, was the distinctive headgear worn by German soldiers in the first years of WW1. Luger was the familiar term for the Parabellum Pistole 1908, an 8 round 9 mm semi-automatic designed by Georg Luger in 1898 and manufactured from 1900 to 1942. The ‘1908’ appellation is because the Luger was first acquired by the German Army in that year.
Although the 10-shot 7.63 mm Mauser C-96 was issued in greater quantity, and has often been incorrectly identified as a Luger, the Luger became inextricably entwined with the American lore of the German army, which persisted through WW2, even though the 9 mm Walther P-38 was far more common in that era.
Pickelhaubes were often called ‘helmets’, although they were unlike the later steel helmets in that they afforded no protection to the wearer from bullets or shrapnel. Originally introduced to the Prussian Army in the 1840’s, they were made from hardened leather. In the latter part of the 19th century the design became quite popular, especially for dress or ceremonial wear – even the U.S. Army and Marines used a variant from 1881 to 1902.
The Germans ditched the Picklehaube in early 1916, issuing the hardened steel Stahlhelm in large quantities for the Verdun Offensive. The Pickelhaube had run its course for several reasons. First the lack of protection as previously mentioned. Second, the shortage of leather, which the Germans had to use as a substitute for rubber, which was scarce due to the British blockade. Third, the Pickelhaube spike gave the wearer a distinctive profile which made German soldiers easier to identify in low light situations.
This wasn’t the end of the Pickelhaube. German police and firemen continued to use variants up until after WW2. Other variants of the headgear are still in ceremonial use by military units in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Portugal, Sweden and Venezuela. Some of these armies were modernized and trained by German advisers in the late 19th century.
Here’s a YouTube clip of the annual ‘Day of the Glories of the Army’ celebration which is held every September 19th in Santiago, Chile. The parade employs what the Chilean Army calls ‘The 1885 Prussian Style’, complete with ‘goose-stepping‘ and Germanic music. Not only will you see Pickelhaubes, but eventually you will also see soldiers wearing 1935-pattern Stahlhelms, too. Call them retro, old school, or frozen in time, but remember that the Chilean Army hasn’t fought a battle since they defeated Peru and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific in 1884.
The world’s largest collection of Pickelhaubes, claimed to be complete, can be viewed at the Fort de la Pompelle Museum on the outskirts of the Cathedral city of Reims, France.
While every Doughboy wanted a Pickelhaube and a Luger, most didn’t get either one. By the time they had come onto the scene, the helmets had been out of use for over two years, and were no longer plentiful as battlefield trophies. As for the Lugers, they were issued only to officers and elite units such as the Stoßtruppen. If a Doughboy came home with either one, likely he bought it.