In the early months of WW1 all of the combatants were wearing headgear better suited for parade grounds rather than in artillery barrages. French soldiers wore a cloth cap, called the képi, which was actually a ‘Franco-cized’ spelling of the German word kappe.
It soon became clear that falling shrapnel and shell fragments from air-bursting indirect artillery fire were causing a large number of head wounds, even to soldiers in good defensive positions.
The French were the first to respond to this crisis by issuing a steel skull cap called the calotte métallique, cervelière , to be worn under the képi, which was soon supplanted by a true helmet. Medical concerns were subordinated to the determination to make the helmet look ‘military’, so visors, a badge plate and a Roman-like crest were added, the latter feature made the helmet somewhat resemble a German pickelhaube (sans the spike). The holes necessary for mounting the crest made the helmet less strong.
Industry weighed in on this, too, wanting a design that was easy and inexpensive to make, so the helmet was made from mild steel and was of a lighter gauge than the foreign counterparts, weighing only 1.1 pounds. Eventually the helmet came with a cover to reduce reflectivity (soldiers had been coating their helmets with mud to address this problem) but it was then found that bits of the cover were infecting head wounds, so the reflectivity problem was addressed by using a rough finish instead. The helmet got the name Casque Adrian from General August-Louis Adrian, who was the officer in charge of the program, and was designated the M15.
The burning question: How effective were these helmets? An answer: Data collected by the British showed a dramatic decline in the incidence of head wounds. More about this in the forthcoming post about the British helmet.
The Adrian Pattern was the first protective helmet to be widely released, with deliveries beginning in mid-1915, and well over 3 million were produced. In addition to France, other combatant nations that used the Adrian were Belgium, Greece, Italy, Japan, Romania, Serbia, Siam and in limited quantities Russia and the U.S. In the post-war years at least ten other countries also bought Adrian helmets.
In 1926 France produced an updated model, the M26, which remained their standard until 1942, when the Free French forces adopted the U.S. helmet M-1941.