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Helmet history: Impractical German headdress


We are almost all surrounded by and governed by the need for status. Large businesses and government bureaucracies know this. They use it to control us and motivate us.

Only some get large offices, large desks, speaker phones, and secretaries. Fewer still have window offices or private secretaries. People work hard to gain these outward signs of success. From my experience in a large corporation they also spend countless hours trying to figure out how to get status symbols they are not entitled to.

This striving for status is not a new phenomenon. Louis XIV, the Sun King, was a short man, 1.63 m (5 ft. 4 ins.) tall. He whole-heartedly adopted the new trend of high heels on shoes that had come into France from Persia. His were 10 cm (4 ins) high and red because that colour dye was striking and expensive. He was widely copied and in 1670 he issued an order that only a limited few of the nobility, the members of his court, could wear red high heels on their shoes. The red heels became such a power symbol of status that men wore them whenever they could.

Charles II of England who was 1.85 m (over 6 ft.) tall wore red high heels in his coronation portrait and presumably for his coronation. Even an English king wanted to show a tie to high Versailles status.

The military which at bottom is a large bureaucracy has long used men’s need for recognition and status to build esprit de corps and spur men on to outstanding actions. Napoleon once said, “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon” He also said this about medals, “Some people call them baubles. Well, it is by such baubles that one leads men.”

Esprit de corps can be built by distinctive items of uniform that mark the regiment as an elite unit or at least different from the others. The old pre Great War British Army specialised in this. Its infantry when compared to the infantry of France, Germany and Russia positively abounded in distinctive uniform elements. These included the Foot Guards bearskins, the fusiliers’ raccoon and sealskin hats, special uniforms for the highland and rifle regiments, and the lowland regiments in their trews with three different types of headdress.

There were five different types of cavalry: household, dragoon guards, dragoons, hussars and lancers. Each had its own uniform and headdress. Then on top of that there were different headdress, collar, shoulder and arm badges for them. It was all enough to make a girl swoon.

In contrast the other Great Powers’ armies were more subdued. Republican France after the colourful uniforms of the Napoleonic era were down right Puritan.

Prussia had a tradition of being thrifty and sober, and this reflected in its uniforms. However, in some cases it borrowed uniform traditions from Russia and when Wilhelm II came to the throne Germany was rich and powerful. This effected his and others’ outlook on the world. The result of these factors was some very outlandish, bizarre and impractical helmets that men were proud to wear because it showed they were members of high status regiments.

Eagle Helmet

Two guard cavalry regiments were marked by eagles on their full dress helmets. One was the Gardes du Corps, perhaps the most prestigious cavalry regiment and maybe the most prestigious regiment of the entire German army. The other regiment was the Garde Cuirassiers regiment which while very prestigious did not attract as many high ranking nobles as the Gardes du Corps. In fact, it did not have as many as several other guard cavalry regiments such as the 3rd Guard Lancers, the 1st Guard Dragoons or the Life Guard Hussars.

The eagles on the top of the helmets for the two guard cuirassier regiments were adopted in 1843 at basically the same time the cuirassier helmet was adopted by the Prussian army. We are so use to seeing this helmet and as collectors lusting after them that we don’t really stop to think how impractical they are. They make no pretense of being something that could be worn in battle.

Lion Helmet

Another helmet that falls in this category is the lion helmet worn by the Saxon Guard Reiter Regiment. (Leib Cuirassier Garde Regiment) This regiment in full dress wore a lion on its helmet in honour of the old Margrave of Meissen, an ancestor of the King of Saxony. The lion was awarded in 1907.

If possible this helmet was even more impractical than the eagle helmets as it tended to get off balance easily.


The next item of headdress is not truly impractical as it, like the British Foot Guard’s bearskins, was at one time worn in combat. But, to modern eyes it looks odd and a bit comical,

The mitre is descended from low cloth caps worn by grenadiers in the 1700s in place of the standard tri corner hat. It is often said that this was done in order to allow the grenadiers to throw their grenades without hitting one corner of their tri corner hats. Since grenades were normally thrown underhanded this is probably not the reason. A more likely reason was to allow them to put their muskets on over their heads. These caps in southern and central Europe were adorned by a bearskin while in Prussia and other northern countries they were fitted with a brass or cloth plate in front displaying armorial bearings. In time the front plates grew taller and more dominant.

On March 30,1824, King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia awarded the second battalion of the 1st Foot Guards Regiment mitres. This was a mistake. It was the first battalion that had the historical tie that entitled them to wear the mitres. So much for Prussian efficiency. This error was corrected in August of 1824.

The mitres were likely given in an effort to improve the general morale of the Prussian army which after the humiliating defeats by the French army in 1806 needed a boost in morale. Looking back to the military feats of Frederick the Great would help.

In 1843 the 3rd (Fusilier) Battalion was awarded a smaller, somewhat different mitre. Other sources say it was in 1848.

The 1st Battalion of the regiment wore from the summer of 1889 on, a banner which said “Semper Talis”. This was because of a supposed tie by the 3rd and 4th companies to the old Giant Grenadier Guards of Friedrich Wilhelm I. Between January 27, 1889, and summer only, the 3rd and 4th Companies had been allowed to wear the banner.

Then on January 9, 1894, Kiser Wilhelm bought a new style of Baroque mitres for the 1st Battalion of the regiment. The Prussian war ministry then paid for the new Baroque mitres of the 2nd and 3rd (Fusilier) Battalions. The new mitres were copies of mitres worn by the Guards Regiment (No 15) under Friedrich the Great. 

The “Semper Talis” banner worn in the past exclusively by the 1st Battalion was now also stamped on the front of the mitre of the 2nd Battalion.

The new mitre plate for the 3rd (Fusilier) Battalion had a stamped banner which said “Pro Gloria et Patria” which had been on the Grenadier Mitres of Regiment 35 of the Frederician Army.

After 1912, the 200th anniversary of Friedrich II’s (Friedrich the Great) birth, the wearing of the Grenadier mitre was extended to the regiment’s mounted officers while on horseback.

The design of the new mitres was a big change and as with any change it was not universally popular. The new mitres were derided by some wearers as ‘party hats’ or as ‘coffee funnels’. Ironically the first jibe came true when after World War I the Baroque mitres were bought and used as party hats for carnivals along the Rhine. This and their short service life is why it is basically impossible for military collectors to find examples of them.

Their headdress may have looked odd, even comical, but the 1st Foot Guards yielded to no one on prestige. And like the red high heels men were proud to wear them.

Many considered the 1st Foot Guards the most prestigious regiment in the German army. It had extremely close ties with the Prussian royal family. For years it had been the custom for Prussian princes to become officers in the regiment at the age of ten.

This was more than just being enrolled in the regiments. There are accounts of a prince writing how hard it was to keep in step on parades with the larger men who took longer steps.

One mark of the regiment’s prestige was that young men tried hard to get into it. Strings were pulled, personal contacts used and political and social pressure was shamelessly applied whenever possible. Mortal men can take only so much of this. One result was that the authorities gave in and let the young men in the regiment. The Prussian Officers List shows that the junior ranks of the 1st Food Guard have more than the regulation number of junior officers and more than the other standard infantry regiments. The Gardes du Corps showed the same tendency. In 1913 it had fifty percent more lieutenants in its ranks than the regulations called for.

In 1894 when the new Baroque mitres were issued the Prussians were far too thrifty to simply throw away the old mitres. Instead they passed on the out of date mitres to the Guards Grenadiers Regiment No. 1. The regiment received the mitres in 1896. The banner that read “Semper Talis” had to be removed from them. This left two small holes in the mitres’ front plates above the star of the Order of the Black Eagle. These mitres with holes gradually disappeared as they were replaced with new mitres. Today the mitres with holes are rare collectors’ items.

When World War I ended these mitres did not meet the fate of their Baroque brothers. They had enough fame and prestige to become collectors’ items almost right away and were thus saved.

By Wendell Schollander

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