NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — When the war to end all wars erupted in August 1914, the armies of Europe were stunned by the harrowing casualties inflicted by landmark advances in weaponry.
The machine gun alone mowed down thousands during the first months of the war, and — when the combatants tried to retreat to their trenches — thousands more fell in thunderous artillery barrages that rained exploding shrapnel down on the unprotected heads of the soldiers.
More than half a year passed before — in February 1915 — the French army introduced a steel skullcap that gave its soldiers their first defense against the deadly shells.
But as a new exhibit at the Virginia War Museum shows, the urgent need to revive something that had been obsolete for centuries still seemed so new and strange that — when hundreds of thousands of American troops began joining the war in late 1917 — the first units arrived with felt campaign hats rather than steel helmets.
"When they got there, the British said, 'you've got to have helmets' — and we didn't have any. So we arranged to buy 400,000 British helmets pretty quickly," said Virginia War Museum Foundation President Larry Munnikhuysen.
"The War Department didn't like it. They wanted an American helmet that would represent the country and enable its soldiers to stand out. But that was a lot harder to do than anyone expected."
Made up of 43 helmets from 17 countries, the new display — called "Steel Pots — Helmets of World War I" — draws on the War Museum's nationally known collection as well as the holdings of two prominent private collectors, Alexandro de Quesada of Florida and Tom Buck of Virginia Beach.
Together, they create an unusually broad and deep survey that former museum director John V. Quarstein describes as "fabulous."
"It's one of the finest arrays of World War I helmets ever assembled," he said.
"There's not a single style or version that's missing — and some of them are unbelievably rare."
In addition to the pioneering steel bowl worn under the French soldiers' cloth caps, the exhibit includes the famous M15 Adrian helmet that not only replaced the original "calote" but also sparked a raft of knock-offs among the armies of more than 20 other nations.
"The calote made a huge difference. It was constructed of pretty heavy gauge steel, and it did the trick when it came to protecting the soldiers' heads from shrapnel," said Munnikhuysen, who is a member of the Company of Military Historians.
"But it's the Adrian that was copied by so many other countries."
After 100 years, the distinctive French helmet is still a widely recognized icon of the first world war.
So is the German Stahlhelm — or steel helmet — that was modeled after medieval examples yet soon recognized by both sides as one of the most effective helmets ever developed, Munnikhuysen says.
Among its early features was a heavy armor plate — known as the Stirnpanzer — that could be attached to mounting lugs and pulled down to provide extra protection for the face whenever the wearer was exposed to enemy fire.
Though it recalls something from the Middle Ages today, the visor represented the most modern development in military headgear design when the coal scuttle-shaped helmet was introduced in 1916.
"It literally could stop a bullet — it's that heavy," Munnikhuysen says, "especially compared to the helmet, which was primarily designed to stop flying shrapnel fragments.
"But all that weight made it a bad solution for soldiers on the battlefield."
So formidable did the German helmet's reputation become by 1917 that — when American designers and armor historians began trying to come up with a national pattern of their own — they did everything they could to imitate but not resemble the enemy icon.
The difficulty of their task can be seen in a series of experimental forms that the Army Ordnance Department — working under the direction of Metropolitan Museum of Art armor curator Maj. Bashford Dean — produced in 1917 and 1918, then tested on troops in the field with repeated failure.
"There are few places where you'll see so many examples of the experimental helmets made by the United States," War Museum Curator Dick Hoffeditz says, describing the rarity of the array.
"But when the soldiers tried them out, they voted against them because of the resemblance to the Stahlhelm. They didn't want to look like Germans."
Almost every one of the American experiments ended up echoing that distinctive shape in some unavoidable way, with the most despised looking the most like the German model.
And those that didn't — like the so-called "Liberty Bell" pattern designated as a replacement helmet late in the war — sparked other complaints that were just as damning.
"They hated it — and they compared its dome-like shape to that of a Chinese fisherman's hat," Munnikhuysen said.
"But it's a good design — and you can see how it could have evolved into the M1 steel pot used in World War II if it hadn't been dropped."
Despite their record of strong reservations, the American troops quickly embraced the so-called "dishpan" design copied from the British Mark I helmet — and the new U.S. M1917 soon became an indispensable part of the familiar battlefield silhouette by which friends and foes alike identified the country's World War I "Doughboys."
Many soldiers developed such deep affection for these helmets that they were reluctant to give them up at the end of the war, causing War Department officials charged with recovering the government's property some unexpected consternation.
"There was so much resistance that they finally relented and decided the soldiers could take them back with them," Munnikhuysen said.
"That's how attached they became to their helmets."