The Iconic, Pickelhaube
An instantly recognisable and lasting symbol of late 19th /early 20th century German imperialism; The Pickelhaube. The Pickelhaube was a very influential helmet setting a truly global trend in helmet styles and design. Although adopted by armies from as far away as South America (such as Chile and Colombia), the spiked head wear will always stand out as an unmistakably German object. Anyone who played with toy soldiers will be familiar with these helmets as a distinguishing feature, the spike marking its wearer as one of the ‘Germans’.
For many, the very mention of the word ‘Kaiser’ musters images of Pickelhaubes and elaborate moustaches. Such tokens remain entrenched in the mind, as synonyms for an era in which we first saw a unified Germany.
The History of the Pickelhaube
The origins of the Pickelhaube are somewhat disputed. There is a popular story that Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm based his 1842 design on a leather prototype he had seen at court whilst visiting his brother-in-law, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. Some say the prototype had been based on a local relic thought to have belonged to a Muscovite Duke from the 12th century.
Although the earliest design was a metal version for cavalry, it was the leather version for infantry that was first implemented in 1842. King Friedrich (a lover of all military pomp and ceremony) was very attached to his design, much to the frustration of troops who found it very impractical and far too tall. Many refinements were implemented over the years which transformed the (later to be deemed) insane king’s design.
By the time his brother Wilhelm became king, the Pickelhaube was a helmet that not only created the image of a highly aggressive military force, but also functioned operationally. The emphatic success enjoyed during the Franco-Prussian war led to the creation of the German Empire in 1871, the king became Kaiser and the helmet was adopted in various forms by the kingdoms and city states that composed the new empire. It was during this era that other powers began to take notice. New helmet designs were introduced that had clearly been influenced by their German counterparts, for example the classic Police helmet we see today in the United Kingdom.
The Design of the Pickelhaube
Details on the structure and features of the various Pickelhaubes could, and has, filled many a book; there really is a myriad of little differences! For the purposes of this blog I would characterise it as a lacquered leather helmet with a detailed metal helmet plate (usually of brass), and a tall spike pointing upwards. Mounted behind the chinstrap or chin-scale were the cockades. Introduced in 1897, there was a black, white and red Imperial cockade worn on the right, and on the left; a National cockade in the distinct colours of the particular region. There were many shapes and styles of Cockade to denote state, rank, and manufacture date.
The Pickelhaube in WWI
By the beginning of the First World War, the Pickelhaubes worn by the different factions within the central powers, all shared the same basic construction of leather and brass. For the sake of camouflage, soldiers were issued green/grey cloth covers to hide the eye-catching brass features.
The high command was in a constant need for more frontline troops, and it was at a time when the allied naval blockade made leather (as with other supplies) scarce. Even sausages were banned for a time as intestines were used in the construction of zeppelins! In addition, the munitions industry sapped up vast amounts of brass; resources were becoming too short to fulfil the high number of leather Pickelhaubes required.
In 1915 a newer steel model was made. This made manufacturing faster and cheaper and it also helped to satisfy the increasingly obvious demand for a more sturdy material in the trenches. The spikes were removable to allay some of the concerns about standing out in the fog of war. Some of the more romantic soldiers continued to wear this type for the duration of the war. The Pickelhaube, alongside the Luger P08 represented some of the more coveted “spoils of war” items to be returned home by allied infantrymen. These fearsome objects added to the mystique and infamy of the “Huns” popularised by the propaganda of the day.
The acceleration into modernity as catalysed by the economics of war did not leave the domain of helmets unaffected: By 1916 a revolutionary new German helmet design emerged, the M1916 Stahlhelm. This marked the end for the Pickelhaube; it would only be a few more years before the empire that it represented would also be consigned to the history books.
Epic Militaria provides excellent reproductions of these covers as well as an expanding range of Pickelhaube helmets available to buy on our website: