About the invention and introduction of the Pickelhaube in Prussia
by Sandy Michael Heinemann
Much has been written about the invention and introduction of the “Pickelhaube”, about the reason for its spike and the origin of the nickname of the helmet, simply designated “helmet” or “leather helmet” in official German. I‘ve also heard a lot about it, unfortunately also contradicting or sometimes only poor information was available.
For this reason, I wanted to do my own picture and have considered the basis, of which original sources I could still investigate the story. I finally found my sources in newspaper articles from the mid-19th century. My thoughts behind this were that the journalists of the time, due to their knowledge and good networking, certainly learned a lot about the invention of the new helmet and wrote it down.
The popular name "Pickelhaube" was quickly established in Germany for the new helmet introduced to the Prussian army in 1842. This name came already up in articles dated July 22, 1841. It was published in the newspapers „Allgemeine Militär-Zeitung No. 63/1841“ and „Regensburger Zeitung No. 182/1841“, where it was compared with "medieval Pickelhaubes1,2,3, as you can find in Europe's armories"1,2,3, or "as Mehmed Ali (meaning is Muhammad Ali, Pasha of Egypt (1769-1849)) chose them for his heavy cavalry in Africa"1,2,3. In later newspaper articles, the design of the helmet was also compared with the “medieval headgear of the foot servants”4 or with the “balaclavas5 of German Landsknechts“6.
Fig. 1 shows a Landsknecht with a helmet in a similar shape to the early Pickelhaube. Compared to Fig. 2, it‘s guessable how these comparisons came to the mind of the journalists.
The stately appearance of a soldier was more important at the time than it is today, that’s why the topic was touched on in almost all newspaper articles4,6,8-12,15,17.
In general, opinions about its look were initially divided6,9,10,11, but later the spiked helmet was considered to be “functional and stylish”4,8,12,15,17. The soldiers and military personnel around the world quickly learned to appreciate the advantages of the helmet, and so it was gradually introduced into many armies around the world5,13.
As well known, the shako has been usually worn in the Prussian army before the spiked helmet was introduced. Although this headgear was dressy, it offered hardly any protection to the soldiers and the felt soaked up with water when it rained, which made it very uncomfortable to wear12.
Therefore, at the beginning of the reign of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV., consideration was given to introduce new uniforms that focused more on military performance than on appearance6,15. Another reason was certainly that the Napoleonic Wars were not that long ago. Many newspaper articles between 1840 and 1841 bear witness to a great fear of another attack from France.
That’s why in mid-May 1841, two commissions for the “examination and revision of the assembly and armament system” were set up by royal cabinet order14. The 1st commission was responsible for clothing and equipment, headed by a Lieutenant General von Rohr from Breslau7,14,15. The second commission, responsible for organizational and formation matters, was headed by Prince Friedrich of Prussia (1794-1863), the nephew of King Friedrich Wilhelm III., who died in 184014,15.
Other members were: General von Natzmer, General von Nostitz, Graf von der Gröben, Graf von Barner, Graf von Tümpling, Colonel von Erhardt (artillery), Colonel von Schack (5th Hussar Regiment), Major von Döring (from the War Ministry), Major Graf von Waldersee (Commander of the Training Infantry Battalion) and the Secret War Councilor Schnobitz15.
The results of these commissions included the new tunic, a new packing system and the spiked helmet8,24. Last, however, was invented by Prince Friedrich of Prussia, proven by a large number of newspaper articles, in which it has been written that the idea and construction of the Pickelhaube can be traced back to him1,2,3,8,15-17,24. He designed the helmet some time before the commissions started because he has sent an infantry helmet, designed and build according to his ideas, to Berlin before May 1841, which got a lot of recognition there15,24.
He was going on to develop the helmet further between 1840/42 with Mr. Jäger from the „Metal-goods Factory Wilhelm Jäger“ in Elberfeld16. Under his management and with a lot of his own money16 the Jäger-Company was able to offer the War Ministry metal helmets for 6 Thaler and 25 Groschen13,25, just two months after the commission started, in June 1841. The enlisted men of the Garde du Corps-Regiment were already dressed in these for testing it in July 18411,2,3,24.
Although the commission was in favor of the new uniform, the War Ministry still wanted to decide against it, due to the high costs. They also had old uniforms in stock for around 400,000 Mark19 (or for about 500.000 soldiers8), which they still wanted to use up8,19,20,21. This didn’t change as during a maneuver in Silesia in 1841 several young soldiers were struggling or collapsed because of the poor equipment22. And also not when a Major named von Menschwitz succeeded in halving the cost of 900,000 Reichstaler for the introduction of the Pickelhaubes22.
But maybe that were reasons why in August / September 1842, at the major maneuver in Euskirchen, the 1st Battalion of the 15th Infantry Regiment was employed with the new uniforms including the new infantry-helmets from Jäger company, for a major practical test8,16 17,24. There, the new uniform and the spiked helmets were completely convincing8,24, which led to a change in royal opinion, and the king ordered to introduce the new uniform with the Pickelhaubes into the Prussian army on October 23rd, 184223,24.
Due to the success of the maneuver in Euskirchen, the decision was also made to equip all infantry regiments with the smooth leather helmets made by the Jäger-Company16. Contrary to claims that they produced metal goods only, the Jäger-Company produced spiked leather helmets en masse at 1843 latest25.
The cuirassier regiments were most likely first equipped with the metal helmets made by the Jäger-Company18, too. In a report of a general German trade exhibition in Berlin from 1844, it is reported that the Jäger-Company produced a wide range of helmets in the highest quality and that they already delivered some to all cuirassier-Regiments18.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the cabinet order for the infantry- or cuirassier helmets, but I found an article about the competitor Harkort (Christian Harkort from Harkorten, Westph.), from whom it was sometimes assumed that he has invented and produced the first spiked helmets13,24. In this article, it was written that the buffalo leather helmets of Harkort were not as durable as the smooth leather helmets from the Jäger-Company and therefore rejected by the War Ministry for majority use16. Harkorts helmets were only found to be good for the dragoon regiments, for which he received an A.K.O on November 29, 184216,18,24.
According to the same article of the Allgemeine Militär-Zeitung No. 9/1843, helmet samples of all branches of arms were also sent to the London War Office, but unfortunately I was unable to check this (Author's note: Maybe there is still unseen archive material about the invention of the spiked helmet there?).
In any case, the unconfirmed legends that King Friedrich Wilhelm IV. of Prussia saw the Pickelhaube in Russia first13 or that he commissioned the military painter Hermann Stilke (1803-1863) to design a helmet13 should be obsolete, due to that large number of articles with Prince Friedrich of Prussia as the inventor of the spiked helmet.
The Pickelhaube was an important and well-thought-out military innovation, which had the improvement of the endurance and protection of the soldier in mind, in combat or against the weather4-6,12. The helmet was made of light hardened leather, was lacquered, comfortable to wear and, thanks to its shape, had a firm fit6,8,12,17. Further, it could defy any weather12. The front visor was pulled down to the level of the eyebrows, which should prevent the soldier from being blinded by the sun and also from dripping rainwater into his eyes5,6,8,13. Similar reasons for the neck guard, which was pulled down a long way to deflect saber strikes and also prevent rainwater from dripping into the neck5,6,8,13.
A brass cross fitting was screwed onto the helmet, with light but robust arms which were intended to deflect the cavalrymen's saber strikes from above4,6,12. Besides a base for the screw-on spike, the cross fitting was provided with holes for ventilating the head to protect it from overheating1-4,6,8,12.
In general, all brass applications should not only look chic but also strengthen the helmet with great lightness to protect the head against saber strikes from all sides4,6,12,13. At the front, this protection was provided by the magnificent coat of arms and the brass visor trim on the front visor. At the back, this was provided by the neck rail, and on the sides by the with brass plates covered chin strap, the so-called Chin Scale. With a closed chin strap, the helmet, which was already well-adapted, would also sit firmly on the head when it was in motion or if hit by a saber6,12.
At parades, many regiments always wore splendid bushes of hair or feathers on their headgear, which shouldn’t be missed also on the new helmet. For this reason, the spiked helmets were provided with a screw-off brass spike that could be replaced by a hair plume funnel. The brass spike was worn for normal duties, the funnel was screwed on, by regiments authorized to do so, for parades5,6,8,13.
Perhaps this could also be the reason for the spike, as tradition and appearance had a higher priority than today. Maybe they wanted to attach a bush of hair and surely to ventilate the helmet, as this topic was often touched on at that time1-4,6,8,12. Due to thr reason that a hair plume funnel was only worn on parades, they had to find an alternative for normal duties, because without a hair plume or spike the helmet would not look pleased.
So there was hardly anything that wasn't thought out about this helmet. At that time it was probably the most advanced military helmet.
However, weapon technology changed and protection against saber blows became obsolete. The fashion taste also changed, but the Pickelhaube has got some very positive adjustments for my taste (Fig. 3).
It became an all-German landmark and despite the later no longer existing protection against modern weapons it has been worn with pride until the end of the German Empire23.
(March 26, 2021)
- „Allgemeine Militär-Zeitung“ No. 63/1841, Article: Preussen, date 22.7.1841
- „Regensburger Zeitung“ No. 182/1841, Article: Preussen, date 22.7.1841
- „Münchener Politische Zeitung“ No. 185/1841, Article: Preussen, date 27.7.1841
- „Bayreuther Zeitung“ No. 239/1842, Article: Aus dem Lager bei Euskirchen, date 30.9.1842
- „Universal-Lexikon d. Gegenwart & Vergangenheit o. neuestes encyclopädisches Wörterbuch d. Wissenschaften, Künste & Gewerbe: Trommel - Vergrösserungswörter“ Vol 32 from 1846, page 278
- „Neue Militär-Zeitung“ No. 28/1858, Artikel: Einige Bemerkungen über d. Bekleidung d. preuß. Infanterie
- „Regensburger Zeitung“ No. 118/1841, Article: Preussen, date 10.5.1841
- „Illustrierte Zeitung“, Collection-Vol 2/1844, page 166
- „Augsburger Allgemeine“ Collection 1842, page 2780
- „Nürnberger Kurier (Friedens- & Kriegs-Kurier)“ No. 265/1843, Article: Berlin, date 22.9.1843
- „Fürther Tageblatt“, Collection 1850, page 311
- „Preußische Wehrzeitung“ Date 11.9.1853, Article: Pickelhaube und Krempenhut
- „Die „Pickelhaube“ als soziales Phänomen - zwischen Militarismus und Symbolismus,Analyse und Rekonstruktion des soziokulturellen Wandels eines deutschen Symbols“ (Master thesis: Michael Wolf, date 25.5.2016 - University of Giessen)
- „Allgemeine Militär-Zeitung“ No. 40/1841, Article: Preussen, date2.5.1841
- „Allgemeine Militär-Zeitung“ No. 46/1841, Article: Preussen, date 24.5.1841
- „Allgemeine Militär-Zeitung“ No. 9/1843, Article: Preussen, date 28.12.1842
- „Didaskalia“ Date 28.12.1842, Article: Das Lager bei Grimlinghausen
- „Ausführlicher Bericht über die große, allgemeine deutsche Gewerbe-Ausstellung in Berlin im Jahre 1844“, page 165,166
- „ Allgemeine Militär-Zeitung No. 61/1841, Article: Preussen, date 7.7.1841
- „Allgemeine Militär-Zeitung“ No. 64/1841, Article: Preussen, date 26.7.1841
- „Bayreuther Zeitung“ No. 153/1842, Article: Preussen, date 20.6.1842
- „Allgemeine Militär-Zeitung“ No. 83/1841, Article: Preussen, date 27.9.1841
- „Aus der Frühzeit der Pickelhaube“ (Zeitschrift für Heereskunde No. 124/1943, Author: Herbert Knötel)
- „Das Königsmanöver im Jahre 1842 – Ein Helm erzählt seine Geschichte“ (Zeitschrift für Heereskunde No. 456/2015, Author: Ulrich Schiers)
- Westfalen.Museum-Digital.de - Stadtmuseum Hagen / Sammlung: [Hagener Stücke] / Pickelhaube (Link: https://westfalen.museum-digital.de/index.gphp?t=objekt&oges=5736)