By Bob Butcher

Answer:   They were all steel helmets.

The war on the Western Front was not very old when the incidence of serious head wounds resulted in consideration being given to providing some sort of head protection.   The Germans and the French were first in the field and by mid-1915 had taken steel helmets into use;  the Germans with their ‘coal scuttles’ and the French with their smaller Adrian helmets.    The British, late in the field, tested the French model but concluded that it did not provide enough protection and, being composed of four parts, was too complex for manufacture.   It was decided to produce a purely British model.

The result was that in August 1915 the ‘battle bowler’ Brodie helmet named after its inventor was adopted.   It was made of mild steel and offered the same protection as the French helmet but could be stamped out from one sheet of metal thus simplifying production.   No sooner had production begun, however, when it was decided that it should be made from Hadfield steel to give it much better stopping power and that all helmets would be made of Hadfield steel.   This decision slowed down production but was accepted in order to have the superior model.  

The first Brodie helmets arrived at the front in September 1915 but only in small numbers and as trench stores rather than individual issues.   About 140,000 Hadfield’s reached the BEF by the beginning of March 1916 and a million had been produced by the summer of 1916.   Helmets were issued to Home Commands in September 1917 and about a million and a half were supplied to the US Army.   About that time steel helmets were supplied to special constables in London to protect them from shrapnel during air raids.  Presumably the regular police had to rely on their cork helmets.

Steel helmets were manufactured by three factories including one in Wolverhampton which produced 25-30,000 weekly.   Total production for the entire war amounted to seven and a quarter millions.

The helmets were well received at the front although the troops irreverently christened them ‘tin hats’.   More importantly the average rate of head wounds among men with helmets was reduced to less than a quarter of the previous rate.

For the technically-minded, the Hadfield helmet was made of hardened manganese steel weighed 2lb and was capable of resisting shrapnel at 750ft per second against the Adrian’s 400ft. Steel helmets could not resist a bullet which had a greater velocity.   Hadfield steel was brittle and at first difficulty was experienced in stamping it out.

Body Armour

It was natural that there was the desire to provide the infantryman with some sort of protection against small arms fire and investigations into the possibility began early in the war.   The core problem was simple but difficult to solve: how to provide armour strong enough to offer resistance but light enough to be worn by the soldier.   An early French invention consisting of using a special gelatine to hold two ordinary steel plates together showed promise until it was realised that special steel had been used.

The BEF requested a bullet proof shield not exceeding 25lb in weight that scouts or bombers could carry forward but there is no record of such an article being used.   However a lighter portable shield was produced in 1917 and issued to the army in the field but it is not clear what use was made of it.   Attention was given to protecting just the vital parts of the body but little progress was made.

By the end of the war the problem of providing practical body armour for the individual soldier had not been solved and no body armour was on general issue.   Nevertheless there were a number of commercially-produced ‘bullet-proof’ vests on sale.   One suspects that they were of doubtful value.

Note:   Much of the above has been taken from The Official History of the Ministry of Munitions.  

Bob Butcher



The site was first used by the French to bury men who had died in the nearby French 15th Hopital D’Evacuation. In June 1915 when the French Hopital moved to Dunkirk,  the first of four British Casualty Clearing Stations was established at what became known as Remy Sidings. It was to become the largest C.C.S. on the Ypres Salient.

It is claimed that only three percent of the patients that were admitted died at the hospitals and these are buried at Lijssenthoek.  It has 9,901 graves, including 41 who were re-interred from small burial grounds nearby.  As it was a Hospital Cemetery there are only 33 graves of unknown soldiers.

Nurse Nellie Spindler is the only woman to be buried at Lijssenthoek.  She died of wounds from a German bombing raid on the nearby hospital at Brandhoek. There are 35 graves of men from the Chinese Labour Force, and while 350 French burials were removed to France, there are still 658 French graves.

After the war 53 American burials were removed to the American Flanders Field Cemetery at Waregem.  A further 67 were repatriated to America.  Three American graves remain. Two were left at the request of the families and a third was reburied at Lijssenthoek at the request of his family.  Alan King’s brother, Reginald, had fought with the British Royal Army Service Corps and their mother chose to have both sons reunited at Lijssenthoek.

In most British Military Cemeteries men and women are buried with no reference to rank.  All are equal in death but at first the front rows of each plot were reserved for officers.  As they were buried in coffins, there is a bigger gap between the graves.  The ‘other ranks’ were wrapped in blankets and so were buried closer together. This distinction ended in late August 1917, and there were no sections exclusively for officers after that date.  Lieutenant Ross Douglas was the first to be buried alongside ‘other ranks’ in Plot 18, row C, grave 11.

The hospitals finally closed in October 1920, and the first great pilgrimage to the cemetery took place on Palm Sunday 1923. Hundreds of parents, widows and children gathered at the cemetery to commemorate their dead.

Richard Lloyd