BASHFORD DEAN, THE CREATOR OF STEEL COMBAT HELMET OF XX CENTURY

BY  NICHOLAS DMITRIEV

 

In April of 1919, one of the most influential men in America, Theodore Roosevelt, wrote in a private letter:

“My dear Major Dean;
First let me say that I wish to thank and congratulate you for your work at Washington. Lord, how I wish I was half as useful!”

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Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of America

A reasonable question would then be: who was “Major Dean”, the addressee, to whom Teddy Roosevelt confessed his sincere desire, “Lord, how I wish I was half as useful”?

Bashford Dean was a scientist. His main interests lay in paleontology and zoology. He studied fossilized fish that lived millions years ago. On this subject he published several books and many articles. He taught biology as a professor at Columbia University. His enthusiasm for these subjects eventually led him to the Museum of Natural History in New York, where he also served as curator.

He had another passion though. Since his childhood, Bashford Dean had been an avid collector of medieval arms and armor. His collection consisted of thousands of items: swords, daggers, sets of armor, helmets, shields, cuirasses, gauntlets, steel boots, and other protective gear. He traveled numerous times to Europe and Asia, from where he brought back, for instance, from Japan, unique samurai combat gear.

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Bashford Dean in Japanese armor, ca 1900

One might well ask: if being a professor of ichthyology and collecting antique iron and leather armor were enough for President Teddy Roosevelt to admit his willingness to being just “half as useful” as his correspondent?

Of course, not! First of all, we have to consider the way Teddy Roosevelt addressed the recipient of his letter: Major! That could shed some light on the relationship between these two persons.

*****

The First World War broke out in August of 1914. From the very first weeks and months of the conflict, it began to be clear that the Allied and Axis Powers, together with their armies, were catastrophically ill prepared for modern warfare. Tremendous losses on both sides were attributable to the power of modern armaments. Trench warfare resulted in a vast increase in head and facial injuries. It took a few months of brutal battles in Europe for leaders to realize that something had to be done as soon as possible.

In 1915, the first steel combat helmet had been introduced and adopted by French troops. It was called the “Adrian” in honor of its inventor, Louis Adrian. It was made of thin manganese steel, though very thin, and was favored by the troops around the world.

AdrianHelmet1915

French combat steel helmet “Adrian” 1915
(Author’s collection)

The Adrian pattern was adopted by other armies, including those of Belgium, Russia, Italy, Serbia, Romania and later Finland, Peru, Thailand and so on.

British troops received their Mk I helmet, or “tin hat,” in late 1915. It was mainly designed to protect the head against shrapnel. It would come to be called after its designer’s name: “Brodie.” Of course, those helmets did more to protect the wearers’ heads from falling debris than felt, leather and fur head gear could. The men in the trenches, however, gave their own names to them: “tin hats,” “dishpan hats,” “washbasins,” and “Tommy’s.”

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British “Brodie” steel combat helmet 1916
(Author’s collection)

Germany’s response came in the beginning of 1916 by putting steel helmets (in German, Stahlhelmen) on the heads of its attack battalions. Dr. Friedrich Schwerd, together with his colleagues, got all the credit for this helmet, which later became a symbol of German military power and pride.

GermanStahlhelm1916German Stahlhelm, steel combat helmet 1916
(Author’s collection)

The US government realized the inevitability of getting into the War of Wars. At first, 400,000 tin hats were obtained from our British allies. They were followed by the purchase of a patent to produce similar helmets for our troops. With some slight modifications, this helmet became the main protective gear of the American soldier from 1917 to 1941.

It received the official code designation M-1917, but it was widely known as the Doughboy. To some extent, Doughboys were effective against shrapnel, but fragments from shells and mines, and flying chips from rocks and soil, on their horizontal trajectories, continued to raise the death toll.

Moreover, British Brodies, as well as their American version, the Doughboys, were badly balanced. While in motion, especially running soldiers had to constantly hold onto them with one hand. Otherwise, the helmets slipped down on the sides, forward onto the face, or fell backwards on the head.

In addition, the Doughboy had an unsuitable suspension system, or liner. French Adrians and German Stahlhelmen had inner helmets, or liners, composed of leather or metal bases and leather pads. They made French, Italian, Belgian, German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers feel more comfortable with their helmets on.

Nevertheless, British helmets were very easy and cheap to produce. They were made of a manganese alloy, from a single piece of steel, and didn’t require many steps in the manufacturing process. Perhaps this was one of the strongest reasons why American military leaders stayed with the Doughboys for so long, until 1941. However, the prospect of getting into real combat in 1917 forced the Americans to explore other opportunities in the field of personal protective gear for the troops.

By that time, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing obtained a position of ultimate authority as Chief in Command of American Expeditionary Force (AEF). Nothing significant could happen without his involvement. He moved hundreds of thousands of troops from one continent to another. He was involved in intense talks with the Allied Powers about the placement of American troops on the battlefield. His decisions on strategy and the tactics of fighting as well as on material support and logistics were crucial.

Pershing
General John J.Pershing

He played a significant role in the development of the American combat helmet. It was General Pershing who was in charge of a deal with the British Office of War on providing Mk I Brodies to the American troops. So, 400,000 tin hats were bought and adopted by Americans under Pershing’s control.

The patent to begin mass production of American Doughboys passed through him and his subordinates as well. We can certainly attribute the iconic silhouette of the American soldier with the tin hat on his head to General Pershing.

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American “Doughboy” steel combat helmet M-1917-A
(Author’s collection)

It is well known that John Pershing had a close personal relationship with Teddy Roosevelt. They knew each other for a long time before the Great War broke out. They happened to meet and strike up a friendship on the battlefields of the Spanish-American War. During the assault on San Juan Hill, “Black Jack’s” troops fought alongside the “Rough Riders” of Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt.

Later, in 1903, it was Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, who petitioned the Army General Staff to promote John Pershing to the rank of Colonel. Alas, the petition was declined due to the rule that promotions should be based on seniority rather than merit. Teddy Roosevelt was very upset and even angry at the highest ranking officers of the US Army, but the rule was the rule. Captain Pershing was not promoted even to the rank of Major.

However, their friendship became only stronger afterwards. It was Teddy Roosevelt who assigned John Pershing to the diplomatic position of military attaché to Tokyo in 1905. So, “Black Jack” became the President’s confidant whose responsibility in Japan was to monitor the developments of the Russo-Japanese War. Part of his mission was to lead the peace efforts, which were finally agreed to in September of 1905. The efforts of the American President in re-establishing peace in the Far East earned him a Nobel Prize in 1906. The contribution of John Pershing to these efforts was incalculable.

But what could the devoted warrior John Pershing, “The Superb”, as he was called later, the 26th President, Teddy Roosevelt, and the biology professor from Columbia University in New York, Bashford Dean, have had in common?

His passion for medieval armaments resulted in Bashford Dean’s becoming closely connected with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He donated, lent or sold some of his artifacts to the Museum. He developed a strong relationship with J.P. Morgan, who was once the chairman of the Board of Trustees. In 1904, Dr. Dean became a guest curator in charge of a collection of medieval arms and armor. Two years later, J.P. Morgan had him made honorary curator and began establishing the Department of Arms and Armor.
The same passion brought Dr. Dean to Japan for the first time; in 1900. Later on, he made several more trips to the country, the latest one being in 1917. He was introduced to the Japanese Emperor and established a good relationship with Japanese authorities, private collectors and art dealers. In Japan, he obtained unique pieces of archaic military culture belonging to that country.

Certainly, John Pershing knew Bashford Dean. They must have met in 1905, in Tokyo, while John Pershing was carrying out his diplomatic assignment there. Bashford Dean came to Japan to work on what is called routine in museum practice; he arranged for an exchange of a collection of Egyptian artifacts from the Metropolitan Museum for a rare group of arms and armor from the Kofun period (3rd through 7th centuries A.D.) with the Imperial Museum in Tokyo.

Around 12 years later, in 1917, General Pershing called upon Bashford Dean with a very specific project in mind: the necessity to find effective protective gear for American troops. He needed someone to take charge of this problem and resolve it.

In a report by Assistant Secretary Benedict Crowell entitled America’s Munitions 1917-1918, published in 1919, we read how Prof. Dean came to the scene: “Through the advice of the National Research Council, which had established a committee of armor experts, the Ordnance Department commissioned in its service Major Bashford Dean…” and the latter became the chairman of the Committee and a member of the Ordnance Department.

It is probable that Theodore Roosevelt was himself the one behind this appointment. Usually, people in the same field of interest in each country know of each other, either directly, or through other people or situations. In this case, there was a remarkable twist. Bashford Dean resided in the house, where Teddy Roosevelt spent his childhood years; the very well known Wave Hill house in the Bronx, New York.

It was here, in the Wave Hill house that Dean set up his outstanding collection of medieval arms and armor. It was for this reason that he built on an addition to the house –Armor Hall. He resided at Wave Hill until his death in 1928.

At the same time, Teddy Roosevelt was no stranger to the Metropolitan Museum. He was very close to J.P. Morgan who was the Met’s president at the beginning of 20th century. President Roosevelt’s name can be found in the list of Honorary Fellows, whose contribution of distinguished scientific service to the museum was highly appreciated. The name of the 26th president is there, right next to the name of Bashford Dean.

*****

So, in 1917, the newly promoted Major Dean received his special mission. Along with his appointment, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was turned into his headquarters, and it became the main site, where an authentically American army helmet could be developed.

MetropolitanMuseumOfArt
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Postcard ca. 1916 (Author’s collection)

Here, in a museum building on Fifth Avenue in New York, a large group of specialists under the leadership of Bashford Dean began working day and night. We know their names thanks to a detailed record by Bashford Dean himself, who wrote and published an excellent book entitled Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare in 1920. He mentioned the names of experts in many related fields, from the history of art to metallurgy; from military technology to medicine; from metalwork to sculpture.

Among these specialists were Alexander McMillan Welch and Isabel Miller, both close associates of Dr. Dean’s. We should also include a tribute to the most talented armor specialist working in Paris, Daniel Tachaux who was hired by Dr. Dean from France. Master Tachaux worked as a conservator of armor at the Met and became the person ultimately responsible for executing Bashford Dean’s ideas.

As a matter of fact, the armory workshop at the Met became a focal point for many high-quality specialists in metalwork such as Bartel, Tinsley and Jacob Merkert. It was in their hands that steel took the form of helmets, cuirasses and body armor, eye shields, individual mobile shields for riflemen, and so on.

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Major Bashford Dean, 1918

First, as Head of the Helmet (and Armor) Committee, Dr. Dean organized research on protective combat devices that had been issued long in the past, as well as very recently in countries involved in the war. The samples of French Adrians, British Brodies, German and Austrian Stahlhelms were scrupulously studied.

Major Dean tried not to miss any experimental helmets and was in contact with helmet makers and inventors from around the world. Thus, he established a connection with Switzerland, where a group of Swiss State Museum colleagues had been working on the same project – designing a combat helmet for the Swiss army.

He concentrated his efforts on materials and ballistic tests as well. Very soon, he understood the advantages and disadvantages of each existing model of combat helmet. He collected and absorbed every bit of information on what men at arms expected from his combat helmet. He participated in meetings in Washington, DC, with politicians, industrialists, and high ranking military brass. He worked tirelessly with representatives of the different companies that would need to start mass production of the helmets for the American troops as soon as a final production model had been accepted by the military. Among them must be mentioned Ford Company already manufacturing Doughboys for the Army.

The essential task was to create an authentically American helmet. In all probability, no one expected the flurry of activity that came from Major Dean in designing one model after another. No more than a few weeks after he was assigned to the Helmet Committee, a full scaled, non-ballistic, Model #2 was introduced to the military. That happened in June, 1917.

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Experimental helmet Model #2 (Photo by the Author)

 

There are many opinions on what influences went into the design of his prototype helmet. Major Dean himself wrote that it was modeled after the “standard” helmets of classical Greece and 15th century Italy. Many publicists and helmet collectors accepted his words as irrefutable.

However, his description was very vague since there are dozens of variations of classical Greek helmets: from Pilos helmets to Boeotian ones, from Corinthian ones to Illyrian ones, and from Chalcedonian, to Thracian, to Trojan bronze war hats. As we can see, there are fewer similarities between any of them and Dean’s Model #2 than there are between Greek amphorae and a Tiffany Sterling silver wine cooler.

Italian armor makers of 15th century were certainly among the best masters in the world. They produced not just protective armor, but marvelous pieces of art. Well, the main idea of a deep sallet was, indeed, accepted by many armory makers of late 15th century and was popular across much of Europe, from Italy to Germany and from Austria to Spain and Switzerland.

For instance, on another coast of the ocean, European design attracted the physician, Dr. Schwerd, and Prof. August Bier, who used it as a basic form for their Stahlhelm, or Model 1916 for German troops.

The idea of a skirt protecting the neck, the sides of the head and the ears seemed to be one that Bashford Dean liked. But the main conception of his helmet was different. Major Dean brought protecting skirt much further forward. Given the depth of the helmet, this provided additional protection of the face of wearer. It gave him the ability to say that “this protects the head more completely than any other modern helmet.” And that was true.

The German Stahlhelm Models 1916, 1917 or 1918, were definitely squarer in outlines, though not shallow, and with a bigger skirt covering the neck, but not the sides of the face. Experimental Model #2 was much rounder and deeper. As seen from the side, it kept uncovered the bottom only portion of the cheeks, nose and mouth.

Around 2,000 such helmets were produced by the Ford Motor Company of Detroit, Michigan. It was absolutely fabulous for Bashford Dean when he wrote that the Model #2 “was shown to the Commander in Chief of the American Forces, who commented upon it favorably” (2, 213).

And nevertheless this design was rejected.

What was the reason for that? It seemed that it looked very much like the German Stahlhelms. In the heat of battle, men under fire, it was presumed, might confuse their own troops for the enemy, and vice versa.

But if you ask military professionals, their point of view would have been quite unlike. The “friend vs. enemy” identification is composed of many factors, from location of troops to color and fashion of uniform, from general contour of the men to their boots or shoes with gaiters, from the profiles of rifles and backpacks to the commands of officers heard from afar.

Headgear also plays its role in the ability to distinguish friends from enemies; no doubt about it. As far as contours go, they might be very distinctive. For instance, German Stahlhelms have relatively flat domed tops and their skirts are drawn back.

Experimental Model #2 has a very round top and sits very low on the head of the wearer, which let Bashford Dean call this version the “deep salad.”

So, the question naturally comes to mind, who were those in the military, who refused to accept the Model #2 helmet? The Commander in Chief of the AEF was Gen. Pershing. Who had more power and authority than he did? Formally, it must be said, that no one.

Well, let’s talk a bit about numbers. Overall, seven large US companies manufactured the steel lids for the M-1917 helmets. Edward G. Budd Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia alone made 1,150,826 steel stampings for the M1917 Doughboy helmet.

They were delivered to the Henry Ford plant in Philadelphia where they were completed with linings, painted and prepared for shipping to the front. There were other steel companies that worked hard on making Doughboys. For less than one and a half years of American direct participation in the Great War, they produced more, than 2,707,000 Doughboys Model 1917-A. To this number should be added the 400,000 Brodies produced in Great Britain that had already been provided to the American troops.

Thus, AEF were equipped with more than 3.1 million British type helmets. By August 1918, when the armistice was signed, there were around one and a half million American troops in France. In all, almost 2.7 million men were furnished to the military services through enlistment. You also need to consider around 300,000 volunteers.

As the matter of fact, the numbers prove that American Forces were well-equipped with M-1917-A helmets. The quantity of them was more than enough for the Army. Their quality was far from satisfactory, but the number shows how large the helmet business was overall. This is the factor that cannot be omitted by researchers.

*****

Although Model 2 was rejected by the “military”, Maj. Bashford Dean seemed not to be discouraged. He kept on doing what he was commissioned to; he continued designing new helmets. After Model No.2, he designed Model No.3 and then Model No. 4. The last one appeared to be a concession to military bureaucratic opinions; it was quite similar to the British Brodie, just a little deeper and wider.

Bashford Dean himself compared his Model No. 4 with the Liberty Bell helmet designed by Maj. James E. McNary. Both models looked quite similar. Neither of them had been ultimately accepted by the Army. A well-known collector and modern author, Peter Suciu of New York writes that the “Liberty Bell” provisionally introduced to the U.S. Army “was so despised by the troops that it was withdrawn from service” (3). Our brave men in uniform compared it to Chinese fishermen hats. They hated looking like Chinese fishermen. Well, considering the military pride and dignity it could be a good reason.

Maj. Dean returned to his own ideas with respect to a helmet’s design. Another several weeks of hard work and his experimental Model No. 5 came into being. Just like the previous Model No. 2, it was designed and crafted by Daniel Tachaux with his assistants.
At the time Bashford Dean tried thoroughly to meet the demands of the military. With the Model No. 5 he took the Model 2 as a base, but made it lighter, a bit shallower, with a wider angle of vision. In the meanwhile, the Model 5 had a round and slightly conical shape to the dome.

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Experimental Model 5, (Photo by the Author)

The model went through ballistic testing. The results were exceptionally good. After that, about several thousand copies of the helmet were stamped out, provided with leather liners and went into the service of the AEF.

Maj. Dean himself went to France, to an active war zone. He needed to collect first-hand information on how his beloved child, the Model No. 5, withstood the challenges of real battle. As he wrote in his book, the helmet’s “sloping peak and well-developed sides distinguished it clearly from the German model” (2, 217).

Now, totally devoted to his assignment, he felt it was his obligation, a mandatory duty, to give the best helmet ever to the Army. The Model No. 5 seemed to be just the thing. The feedback from the troops was strong and positive. The soldiers in the field, especially the officers of the 77th division and the 401st Field Telegraph Battalion, had a chance to wear these helmets and they liked them.

SoldierWithModel5HelmetOn

Photo from the book Helmets and body armor in modern warfare by B. Dean, p.249

In all probability, Maj. Dean seemed to underestimate the one thing that often plays a key role in all great projects. This could be called the influence of an authoritarian person or of a group of people with their own interests and motivations.

There was only one underestimated obstacle. Probably, Bashford Dean and his colleagues did not even suspect such a circumstance. But we don’t want to overlook the fact that Gen. Pershing in a past failed to be promoted from the rank of Captain to Major. As for Prof. Dean, however, he had never served in the Army before, and yet, he was promoted to Major overnight, from the rank of civilian, never having been so much as a private.

We should not forget either, that dozens of companies competed for the huge government order to produce the M1917-A Doughboys. As Benedict Crowell wrote in his Report, “When the armistice was signed, factories were producing more than 100,000 helmets every four days…” (2, 225). That statement referred to the production of the M-1917-A helmet, the Doughboy.

AmericanGuysInHelmets1917

American servicemen in combat headgears. Two soldiers from the right of a top row have Model 5 on their heads as well as first and fourth servicemen from the left of a middle row. The first soldier from the left of a lower row (sitting with cigarette) has a German Stahlhelm on. The difference is obvious.

The Model No. 5 was doomed. To the disappointment of Maj. Bashford Dean, it was rejected just like all his previous models.

It is still unknown if the paleontologist and avid collector of medieval armor, Bashford Dean, knew that Gen. John Pershing preferred frontal assaults and neglected maneuvers. At the same time The Superb always commanded from the rear, and reprimanded his subordinate officers who got too close to the fighting.

These frontal assaults were bloody and costly. The battle of the Argonne Forest where the AEF lost 26,277 killed and 95,786 wounded in September/November, 1918, was proof of this. But that is what war is all about, isn’t it?

Later, Bashford Dean wrote in his book, referring to the Model No. 5, “It would unquestionably have saved the lives of many of our soldiers” (2, 217). Now, you, the readers in the 21stcentury, can take a look at this piece of art and not fail to agree with the author. However, the helmet was never adopted by the US Army. A total of 116,516 Americans lost their lives during WWI.

*****

There was a fabulous twist to the story about the Model No. 5. As was mentioned before, Maj. Bashford Dean maintained strong and tight contacts with his counterparts at the National Museum in Zurich, Switzerland. The Directorial Assistant there, Dr. Edward Gessler, along with First Lieutenant Paul Boesch of the General Staff, worked together on the similar project, trying to create the optimal design for the original Swiss helmet.

In his book, Bashford Dean called Dr. Edward Gessler his friend. They really were friends and they both worked in museums. They both took part in designing combat helmets for the military of their countries. There was an intense correspondence between them from Zurich to New York and back.

Colonel Imboden of the Swiss Army was formally and officially in charge of designing and making the authentic helmet. But in reality, it was Dr. Edward Gessler and First Lieutenant Paul Boesch who managed the whole project. Made of 1.5 mm thick manganese steel sheet, this solid model was first experimentally produced by the Werker factory in Baden and then by the Metallwaren Company in Zug in October, 1917. It was adopted at the very beginning of 1918. According to the year, it got the name of the M18 Swiss Combat helmet.

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Swiss steel combat helmet M1918/40. (Author’s collection)

This protective headgear was a dramatic success. It looked strikingly similar to the Model 2 and the Model 5 American helmets designed at the Metropolitan Museum. There were some little differences, of course, between them. Swiss M18 helmet has two air-vents on a rear, and American Models 2/5 don’t feature this detail, particularly. Also Dr. Gessler and First Lieutenant Bosch slightly cut of the sticking out forward cheek-sides skirt. Just a little bit. Also there were different paints used by designers.

Dr. Dean publicly denies that his designs found their rightful place in military history due to his friendship with Dr. Gessler. Perhaps, it was not in their plans to make public such sensitive facts. It’s worth noting, that at that time, in 1917, the US Congress passed the Espionage Act and later enforced it with additional laws. According to this Act, anyone delivering military related information outside, “to a person who was not entitled to have it” could be court martialed.

The fact that Dean was a Major of the US Ordnance Department did not exempt him. Under this and related legislative acts, hundreds of people were sentenced in the USA: some to 10 years in prison, and some for as many as 20 years. It suffices to mention that only in March of 1919, President Woodrow Wilson pardoned or commuted the sentences of some 200 prisoners convicted as spies, saboteurs and anti-government agents. Yet, how many of them served their time?

Of course, Switzerland kept neutrality during the WWI, but a significant part of its population was of German origin. Who could guarantee that Dr. Gessler and First Lieutenant Paul Boesch were not agents of the German General Staff?

While Edward Gessler wrote in a letter in December 30, 1918, “The helmet was designed by myself and First Lieutenant Paul Boesch,” Bashford Dean humbly remarks, “It resembles our helmet so closely that it could be readily be mistaken for it, and yet, there is no doubt whatsoever that the two models were designed independently on either side of the ocean…”

Could it be true? Well, just take a look at those two helmets, set next to each other. Can anyone honestly assert that they were designed independently?

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Bashford Dean’s Model 5 (left) and Edward Gessler’s M-1918 (right)

By the way, Dr. Dean wrote and published his book in 1920, two years after the events in question. Yes, the Great War was over, the Espionage Act had already fallen into relative disuse, though it had not been repealed. In fact, it is still in effect even now. For example, the US government, in 2013, charged Edward Snowden with three felonies including two under the Espionage Act of 1917. Regarding this, it is obvious what the real reason could be for the mutual denial of Dr. Gessler and of Dr. Dean in cooperating and, perhaps, trading information on the Model 5.

There is another point of view on the issue. It had been revealed by a person whose position in the military administration allowed him to know a lot about American helmet. It was Benedict Crowell, the Assistant Secretary of Munitions, who in his official US report stated: “The No. 5 helmet, complete, weighed 2 pounds, 6 ½ ounces. It combined the virtues of several types of helmets. It gave a maximum of protection for its weight. It was comparatively easy to produce. The helmet with slight variation was later adopted as the standard helmet of the Swiss Army. The latest German helmet, it is interesting to note, was approaching similar lines” (1, 225-226).

This is exactly the point that needs no further proof. It is interesting that the Germans, not only were aware of the M18Swiss helmet, but “found” it shockingly similar to their own M1916 and M1917 Stahlhelmen. Their reaction was remarkable. They went to court to sue the Swiss government for infringing on their copyrights. They won and were awarded 5,000 Swiss francs. In all honesty, the settlement set by the court was ridiculously insignificant. Back at that time, one M18 helmet cost 22.5 Swiss francs. That means that the Germans received payment for only 222 helmets.

Also, by that decision, the Swiss court confirmed the right of the Gessler-Boesch model M18 to exist and to be placed into service for Swiss troops. Switzerland retained the right to produce its “authentic” M18 steel headgear. More than 603,000 (!) of them were produced during and after the Great War. Later, with the slight modifications, the Swiss helmet became the M40 and as the M18/40, it remained in service until 1971.

Therefore, the very name of Bashford Dean was, to say figuratively, covered by the judge’s verdict. The Swiss court had established the nominal designers as Gessler and Boesch, but the real mastermind and creator of the Swiss M18 remained in the shadows.

*****

Now, a fresh and impartial look at the issue of similarity between all these helmets, the German M1916, the Swiss M18 and the American experimental Model 2 and Model 5, can reveal the real place of Bashford Dean in the story. First, let’s talk about similarities or, to be more precise, differences between the Model 2/5 (or the Swiss M-18) and the German Stahlhelm.

The German M1916 was stamped from one high-quality chromium-nickel steel alloy sheet. Its main contour elements were straight lines and nearly square angles: the top of the cupola is somewhat flat, the upper line of the skirt geometrically divides the helmet into two halves, and the visor appears to be separated from the skirt. By doing this, Dr. Schwerd and Prof. Bier gave the Stahlhelm distinct protection from above and behind.

In contrast to the German Stahlhelm, Dean’s models have classic round and deep cupolas. It is a very significant distinction. Instinctively, or by deliberate calculation, he came to a solution that the round shape of the helmet was most advantageous to deflect shrapnel, fragments of shells, flying rocks, wood splinters, all kind of debris and some of the bullets.

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German Stahlhelm vs. American Model #5

Dean made the cupola very deep so that 2/3 of the head could be protected by steel. As a result, he didn’t need a large skirt covering the neck. Instead, he decided to have a slightly rolled mini-skirt on the back. Drawn closer to the face, it was transformed into large “ear plates” on both sides.

This designer’s idea of “ear plates” was absolutely ingenious. This part transforming into the visor let him build a protective arc or some sort of a second cupola around the face. At the same time the “ear plates” covered a significant part of the shoulders from shrapnel and debris.

Now, we are going to look at the Swiss M18 helmet. Made with 1.5 mm manganese steel it generally replicates the elements of Dean’s Models 2 and 5. The round cupola, the very deep set of the helmet, the mini-skirt (only one and a half inches; low as compared to the three inches of the Stahlhelm) all are practically the same. Also, there is a striking similarity of the extended forward “ear plates” that turn into a visor and form a kind of second cupola around the face of the wearer.

This specific feature, the “ear plates,” is completely absent in the French M1915/1926 Adrians and the British Brodies. But it was this very solution that appeared to be most appealing to military designers around the world. Thus, the Soviets in 1936 “borrowed” this design, not paying so much as a penny in royalties, as is typical for them. They used this idea for the design of their own Steel Helmet, SSh-36, or the so-called Khalkingolka.

Alexander Shwarz, a first lieutenant in the Red Army’s Ordnance Department, proposed his version to the Soviet military’s top-brass and it was accepted. Soon, all of Stalin’s hordes had new headgear, the Steel Helmet 36, or SSh-36. These helmets were used by Soviet troops during their conflicts in the Far East in 1938 and 1939. Soviets wore them during their aggression against Finland in the 1939-40 “Winter War”. Red Army soldiers and commanders had SSh36 on their heads during the invasion of the Baltic countries, Bessarabia and Poland in 1939/40.

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Soviet SSh-36, Khalkingolka, steel combat helmet
(Author’s collection)

The feature of “ear plates” had been kept in the subsequent, later designs of Soviet combat helmets, the SSh-39 and its successor the SSh-40. The “ears” themselves became less noticeable, but the main concept remained unaltered.

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Soviet SSh-40 steel combat helmet
(Author’s collection)

After WWII, the east block of satellites controlled by the Soviets adopted the main design of the SSh-40 with only minor modifications. Thus, the wz-50 and wz-67 in Poland, the M-52/53 in Czechoslovakia, and the M-59 and M-70 in Hungary helmets came into service. Tens of millions of these types of helmets were stamped and delivered to many other countries throughout Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe.

Another distinctive structural feature was a rolled-up skirt, which had been designed by Bashford Dean. It’s clearly visible in the Model 2. Later on, this element was repeated in the Model 5 and other models. As a matter of fact, it played a significant role in the overall design of steel combat helmets.

*****

The rejection of the Model 5 did not stop Maj. Dean. Of course, it was a disastrous blow for his self-esteem as well as for dynamic confidence of his team. But he probably was able to absorb the best personal characteristics of ancient warriors, their dignity, persistence, physical and moral endurance, and loyalty to the highest ideals.

He kept on experimenting with shapes, forms, and steel alloys in Models 6 and 7. In his Model 6 he proposed face armor, and turned the head helmet into the so-called calotte. Model 7 was stamped of nickel-manganese steel and appeared to be a 20thcentury version of a medieval siege helmet. Mainly, it was designed for machine gunners and was quite heavy; from 11 to 18 pounds.

BD-Model8

Bashford Dean, Experimental helmet Model #8, 1918

The next model, the Model 8, was a real breakthrough. Bashford Dean built this helmet using the best features of the Model 5 and other models, yet added a full face movable visor. That was the direct response to American soldiers in the field who had requested a helmet that protected not just the head, but the face as well. When the visor was up, it served as an additional brow plate, protecting the forehead of the wearer.

To complete the helmet with visor, Maj. Dean had to revise the Model 5 configuration. The protruding visor of the helmet was removed – or just cut off. The “ears” were shortened, though staying stretched forward.

Bashford Dean shortened the skirt and rolled it up at the back and sides. That had never before been done to steel helmets of the 20th century. There are plenty of examples of rolled-up skirts and sides used after the Model 8 was designed and described in Dean’s book, however.

The very first among them should be the noteworthy Danish steel combat helmet, the M-1923. Mannie Gentile, a well-known helmet collector from New Jersey once remarked regarding the M-1923, “A deep bowl and very wide skirts characterize this very Danish helmet” (4). Of course, he was right. But we don’t want to forget that the “deep bowl” and the “very wide skirt” were also distinctive features of Bashford Dean’s Model 5.

DanishModel1923
Danish steel helmet M1923/40
(Author’s collection)

By cutting down the visor, the Danish helmet designers emulated Dean’s Model 8. Also, the rolled-up edges of the Danish M-1923 reveal the direct influence of the American source.

The Soviets, as was mentioned, did not roll the skirt on SSh-36 Khalkingolka helmet. They didn’t even roll the very edge of the helmet, allowing it flare out. But their next combat helmet, the SSh-39, had a distinctive rolled up skirt. Why? They followed the lead of Bashford Dean, shortening the “ears” and the visor of the SSh-36, and thereby, coming to his classic solution.

The rolled-up short skirts functioned as an enforcement frame or some sort of stiffening plate. Also, it moved the center of gravity down which made the helmet more stable on the head. Finally, these rolled-up skirts, together with the visor, provided shelter for the wearer from all kinds of precipitation: rain, snow and sleet.

What about us, the Americans?

We modified the M-1917 helmet, the iconic Doughboys, by improving liners, changing chin straps, texturing paint and so on. In addition to the 3.3 million Doughboys of the WWI era, we produced approximately 908,000 M-1917-A1 Kellys just before WWII.

Probably, the most stagnant segment of society is the military. If soldiers got used to the Model 1903 Springfield rifle, to the putties around the shins, to helmets that fell and moved from to the side when running, then only a big new war could change their mentality.

AmerianM1-SteelPot
American M1 steel combat helmet, 1941-45
(Author’s collection)

This is what happened later, in 1941, when the iconic M1 “Steel Pot” helmet was introduced and adopted. But that is another story.

*****

As to Maj. Dean, he seemed not to be bothered by rejection of his models. He continued on his mission, coming up with new ideas for the ever newer models. In 1918, he proposed around half a dozen of new helmets. The Model 9, the machine gunner’s, was very similar to its source, the 17th century siege helmet. Of course, it looked completely obsolete. Yet, the great advancement appeared to be a new steel alloy used for the helmet. Developed under the auspices of the Ordnance Department, the alloys permitted stamping a headpiece that “could withstand machinegun fire, even when armor piercing bullets were used,” wrote Bashford Dean later in his book (2, 224).

In June 1918, another headpiece was designed, the Model 10. It was so progressive in its design that more than 50 years later, the Swiss Army adopted a helmet stunningly similar to it, the so-called M-71 helmet. No doubt, the Swiss M-71 was a new step forward from the M-18/40 that finally exhausted its usefulness.

SwissM-71
Swiss M-71 steel combat helmet
(Author’s collection)

But the resemblance of the M-71 to the Models 8 and 10 could evince an almost unreal suspicion that someone in Switzerland kept the drafts and descriptions of Dean’s headpieces somewhere in the closet for more than half century. At the right time, they were taken out and put in production.

Yet, Bashford Dean made every possible and even impossible effort to develop appropriate protective gear for our fine fighting men in Europe. Besides 13 models of helmets and several types of body armor for ground troops, he and his crew created shields for machine guns, canons and aircraft pilots. His experimental model of an aviator’s armored chair was completed by the end of the war.

The head of the aviator was covered with specially designed Models 14, 14-A and 15 “Aviator’s helmets.” They had no visors, but had a very characteristically rolled tiny skirt at the rear. They also had attached hinged armored ear plates on the sides. Later on, we could see the same ear plates on American M-3 Flak helmets. They were designed for air gunners in 1943, and used in the American Air Forces and Navy. It took a quarter of a century for military helmet engineers and designers to realize how necessary ear plates were for some specific headpieces. It is fascinating to see how the results of the work of genius, makes its way, no matter how convoluted, to general acceptance and comes to be appreciated by later generations.

Even this short review of what this man accomplished fires our imagination. That’s exactly what makes the confession of Theodore Roosevelt understandable, “Lord, how I wish I was half as useful!”

*****

During the centenary celebration of the Department of Arms and Armor in the Metropolitan Museum in 2012/13, the museum guides gave great lectures to the public honoring Bashford Dean’s accomplishments.

Yet, they appeared to be somewhat shy and uncertain when it came to the topic of his contribution to the US military during WWI. Very often, they elusively murmured that Bashford Dean was assigned to the Ordnance Department to design an American combat helmet, but all his models were rejected. They did not develop the subject. Perhaps it might be due to the fact that it’s customary to praise winners and to feel sorry for losers.

People like to associate themselves with winners. They want to be real champions in the world of competition and progress. But let’s ask ourselves, how many times were we misled by so-called public opinion or by the wrong assertions of contemporary prophets? How often did we run into a situation where our idols of yesteryear have been turned into dead chunks of wood, but people nearly lost to history come back and their works suddenly shine brightly?

That is what can be fully attributed to Bashford Dean and his magnificent team that worked in the basement shops of the Metropolitan Museum during the time of WWI. Like his country, his was unique. He was a paleontologist, a curator in two world famous museums and an avid collector of medieval arms and armor. He was a friend of Teddy Roosevelt, J. P. Morgan and many other luminaries. He was welcomed in the court of the Japanese Emperor and came back home to New York with an exclusive collection of ancient armor.

He was known as an extravagant person and posed in samurai battle armor in front of the camera. He was commissioned to the rank of Major from the rank of being a civilian during the Great War. His fifteen (!) models of combat helmets have never been approved for mass production and adopted by the military.

His combat helmet outline and designs have been used by dozens of countries. He never received any benefit from the millions of steel helmets that were produced on the basis of his models. As a matter of fact, it was a dramatic conflict between the military bureaucracy and an American genius. Geniuses never lose.

After the war Maj. Dean resigned from the military and took off his officer’s uniform for good. He returned quietly to his routine practices. He taught biology, worked as curator at the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Natural History in New York, enjoying his great collection of ancient armory. He also wrote and published his amazing book “Helmets and body armor in modern warfare.”

He died in 1928, at the age of sixty-one, after surgery, without knowing the true impact his work had on military design and technology of protective gear throughout the world. Today we have the honor and full right to call Bashford Dean not just the Father of the American combat helmet, but the Creator of the steel combat helmet of the 20th century.

 

REFFERENCES:
1. America’s Munitions 1917-1918; Report of Benedict Crowell, Assistant Secretary of
Munitions (US Government Printing House, 1919,
2. Bashford Dean, Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare, Yale University Press, 1920
3. Peter Suciu, American experimental helmets from WW1, (on-line publication)
4. Mannie Gentile, Combat Helmets of the 20-th Century (on-line publication)

 

About the Author:

NICHOLAS “DMITRICH” DMITRIEV IS A WRITER, AN INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST WITH 35 YEARS OF PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE, AND A COLLECTOR.

Date of publication 5/26/2018

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nickdmitrich

A collector, historian, journalist, writer

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