While the bulk of the fighting in the First World War occurred in Europe, notably on the Western Front, the conflict was truly a “World War” as soldiers fought in distant parts of the globe. One of the more colorful tales involved those of Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant Colonel) Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, who commanded the German colonial forces in German East Africa – today Tanzania.
During this campaign the Germans relied on field-made equipment, and utilized every piece of arms and ordnance at their disposal. Von Lettow-Vorbeck increased the strength of his military force by recruiting German colonists and from the indigenous population, but also by requisitioning a full company of sailors from the SMS Königsberg. It is possible the above helmet was used by one of those sailors.
This photograph was sent to me by a fellow contributor that is clearly a mixture of young and old (and rather portly) British “officers.” Interesting to note the “pips” on the soldier seated far right and the brass buttons on most. Also note the variations in the tunics of these British soldiers, and the fact that Sam Browne belt’s do not sport holsters nor sword frogs.
What isn’t so clear is when or where this photograph was taken. Obviously we can narrow it down to the latter decades of the 19th century based on the uniforms, equipment and notably the helmets – the “where” is the other mystery. The terrain appears generally flat without much foliage, but is this South Africa, the Sudan, India or elsewhere?
As we have previously noted many nations that had no colonial empires had soldiers don sun/pith helmets at various times. One of the more unique examples of this is Poland – a nation that didn’t even exist as an independent land for almost 150 years.
After achieving independence in 1918 and fending off an invasion by the Soviets in 1920 the nation of Poland was again occupied by invaders again in 1939. With the nation occupied by the Germans – as well as the eastern portion of the nation essentially annexed by the Soviet Union – many Poles fled to Great Britain to continue the fight to liberate their nation. The terms of the Allied Forces Act 1940, which was an Act of Parliament passed in late 1940, gave legal authority for the recognized sovereign governments of Belgium, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Norway and Poland – all of which were under German occupation – to raise, equip and maintain independent armed forces on British soil.
These Polish soldiers eventually formed the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division, and headed to the Middle East where they joined Free French soldiers in liberating pro-Vichy French Syria and Lebanon. This Division later served with General Montgomery’s Eight Army in North Africa, and throughout this campaign was outfitted in British tropical uniforms and sun helmets.
An Imperial Guard Helmet of the Malagasy Kingdom from the reign of Queen Ranavalona III. This is the only known surviving example and it is in the Musee de l’Armee in Paris
The French invasion of Madagascar in 1897 ended the Malagasy Protectorate, but this brief war could also be the first time that forces on both sides worn sun helmets. It is just one part of a strange and somewhat fascinating story of the fall of the Merina Kingdom, two English adventurers and the annexation of the island nation. Continue reading →
A pith helmet in the capital of the British Empire might not seem that odd at all. A helmet made of pith with a London maker/retailer stamp does seem a bit more odd – especially when one considers that the majority of helmets produced in Great Britain were in fact made of cork. As we’ve noted cork and pith are two distinct materials, and English hatters opted for cork, which came from nearby Portugal; while we have found that Indian hatters worked with sola pith, which was more common in the subcontinent.
There are no doubt countless exceptions to the rule, and both Roland Gruschka and I have discovered Wolseley helmets that seem to have been made in India. This is interesting as the Wolseley was a helmet largely produced in cork. Shortages of the material in World War I resulted in helmets with straw bodies as noted by two examples in my colleague Stuart Bates’ collection, and during World War II shortages of cork resulted in helmets being produced out of pressed felt. Continue reading →
One great irony of the era of imperialism and European colonial empires is that the French reached their colonial zenith as a republic. In fact an overseas empire was seen as a way of restoring the prestige of France following the humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. As we’ve noted in past articles the French utilized their own style of “colonial” pattern helmet. Continue reading →
One still hotly disputed debate surrounds what was the first sun helmet utilized by the Third Reich. It is true that the Kriegsmarine used a pressed fiber styled helmet that was a holdover from the days of Weimar Republic’s navy but by the outbreak of the Second World War the German military wasn’t exactly planning for combat in tropical regions.
Much of this changed with the fall of France in June 1940 and the opening of a campaign in North Africa later that year, followed by the invasion of the Balkans in the late spring of 1941. In other words the German military planners likely didn’t have a plan when it came to tropical uniforms or equipment. It is therefore possible that the first pattern of sun helmet used in the Mediterranean theater were of Italian origin! Continue reading →