As previously noted the conical hat – known as the “nón lá” or leaf hat – was in fact widely used in the Vietnam and neighboring regions throughout the 19th century by farmers and soldiers (including bandits) alike.
What is unique about the Vietnamese nón lá is that it has its own origin, based on a legend to the growing of rice in the region. This tells of a giant woman from the sky who protected humanity from a deluge of rain, and she wore a hat made of four round shaped leaves to protect her from the rain – and that inspired farmers to stitch together their own style of helmet. This has evolved over the centuries and various styles have become common in the different parts of Vietnam. Continue reading →
Few military forces wear the sun helmet as its primary headdress, but one exception is that of the small military power of Monaco. All together only 255 soldiers serve in Monaco’s military (the Force Publique) – making its military the third smallest in the world after Antigua and Barbuda, and Iceland – and of those 119 officers and men make up the Compagnie des Carabiniers du Prince (Prince’s Company of Carabiniers). Many of the NCOs and soldiers are local, but the officers generally served in the French Army or Republican Guard. Today the unit’s primary headdress is a white summer helmet based on the French 1878 pattern.
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 →
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 →
Neck flaps or neck curtains to be attached on a sun helmet are much rarer to find than any kind of helmet itself. No wonder one tries to get hold on any flap that comes along. Like the one that is the subject of this article. Now, this example but turned out to be something completely different, than a piece of military equipment. But – nevertheless – it is interesting to learn more about it. Continue reading →
In May 1940 the German Army invaded France and six weeks later Paris fell. An armistice was signed between France and Germany, but Charles de Gaulle quickly formed a government-in-exile and created the Free French Forces.
One of the principal units raised was the 1st Free French Division, which was first organized under British sponsorship as the 1st Free French Light Division in May 1941 near Tel Aviv. This unit was issued British equipment including sun helmets – and it engaged Vichy authorities in the Levant (modern day Lebanon and Syria). Units of the division continued to serve with Allied Forces and fought at Bir Hakeim and El Alamein. Continue reading →
An American Army tropical “Pressed Fiber” helmet and mosquito net from the Vietnam War era of the late 1960s (Author’s Collection)
The military sun helmet was introduced to save lives, not from bullets or even spears but from quite literally from the sun. The European soldiers – first the British but later the French, Belgian, Spanish, Portuguese and Germans – fell victim to sun stroke and heat stroke in their respective newly obtained colonies. The sun helmet offered protection from the sun and along with better tropical clothing likely helped save countless lives beginning in the second half of the 19th century.
The other problem facing soldiers as well as diplomats, colonists and workers was tropical disease. Among the most deadly was yellow fever. Even today in many tropical regions – especially Africa and South America – yellow fever continues to be a major problem. Today nearly a billion people live in an area of the world where the disease is common. Yellow fever originated in Africa but spread to South America through the slave trade in the 17th century, and since that time there have been major outbreaks in the Americas, Africa and even Europe. Continue reading →