The Letters Of A WWI Soldier Led A French Relic Hunter To A Buried Cache Of German Helmets

In 2011 Mathieu, a 24-year-old relic hunter, found a cache of WWI artifacts so formidable that it left many collectors green with envy. Indeed, after digging into thick, wet mud in what looked like a submerged gun hole, the man who also calls himself “Harvest” was rewarded with an outstanding haul of buried treasure.

But let’s backtrack a bit. Mathieu had located the site in the French countryside by studying the letters of a WWI soldier. According to the letters, moreover, there was a dump in the area filled with the confiscated possessions of German prisoners of war. And, thanks to hints from some elderly local farmers, Mathieu was able to zero in on its exact location.

Equipped with a simple shovel, Mathieu dug into the ground and in fact quickly began to make astonishing discoveries in the forgotten dump. Furthermore, after sharing images of his finds on War Relics Forum – a website for militaria collectors and historians – scores of military enthusiasts posted their congratulations.

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The antique equipment he pulled from the ground was around a century old. Moreover, it had been so well-preserved under the thick, peaty earth that it was likely to be worth a princely sum on the collectors’ market. So, what did Mathieu actually find?

In particular, he had found helmets – scores and scores of German helmets. These were examples of the Stahlhelm – German for “steel helmet” – which was the official replacement for the distinctively spiked Pikelhaube helmets that had been standard kit until 1916. The Stahlhelm was specifically designed to protect against the shrapnel and bullets of modern trench warfare, and it was highly effective.

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Certainly, that seems to have been the case in at least one incident described by a German soldier of the period. “Suddenly, with a great clanging thud, I was hit on the forehead and knocked flying onto the floor of the trench,” said Reserve Lieutenant Walter Schulze of the 8th Company Reserve Infantry Regiment 76. “A shrapnel bullet had hit my helmet with great violence, without piercing it, but sufficiently hard to dent it.”

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Schulze’s account, recorded in Jack Sheldon’s German Army on the Somme, describes his experience in the Battle of the Somme on July 29, 1916. The grueling 141-day battle took place on the upper Somme River in France and pitted the German Empire against the French and British armies. It was, moreover, one of the most brutal battles in world history and saw more than a million men killed or wounded.

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Fortunately for Lieutenant Schulze, it was not his time to die. Without his Stahlhelm, though, it would have been a different story. “If I had, as had been usual up until a few days previously, been wearing a cap then the Regiment would have had one more man killed,” he added.

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But although the Battle of the Somme was WWI’s largest battle on the Western Front, it was not the first occasion on which the Stahlhelm had been used by the German army. In fact, the Battle of Verdun – a bloody 303-day clash between the French and Germans – represented their first use in live combat.

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Running from February 21, 1916, to December 18, 1916, the battle is regarded as one of the most punishing of its kind in world history. It resulted in an estimated 714,231 casualties. Indeed, French historian Antoine Prost would go on to assert that “like Auschwitz, Verdun marks a transgression of the limits of the human condition.”

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The prototype for the Stahlhelm, meanwhile, was developed in 1915 by Dr. Friedrich Schwerd of the Technical Institute of Hanover. Its design was partly taken from the sallet, a 15th-century Italian war helmet that offered exceptional head and neck protection. And it was subsequently tested in the Kummersdorf Proving Ground before finally being issued to troops.

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The original M1916 model featured side-mounted ventilator lugs which resemble small horns. These were designed to hold a brow plate called a Stirnpanzer; this addition, however, proved too heavy for everyday use. As such, the Stirnpanzer was employed only by trench-raiding parties and snipers, for whom the extra encumbrance was worthwhile.

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A related design flaw was that these ventilator lugs exposed the wearer to the cold winter air. Many soldiers therefore blocked them with mud or cloth. Likewise, the helmet’s flared skirt, which distorted sounds and caused the wearer’s voice to echo, proved a major drawback.

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From an economic perspective, mind you, the Stahlhelm helped to save the most precious of war resources: human lives. Nevertheless, its basic material – martensitic silicon and nickel steel – was more costly to forge than the Hadfield steel used in British Brodie helmets. The end product, however, was physically harder than the Brodie.

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But despite its cost and flaws, the Stahlhelm proved so successful that it remained in production until 1992. That year, it was finally replaced with a Kevlar helmet known as the Gefechtshelm – the battle helmet. Over the years, too, gradual improvements to the Stahlhelm were made, with each new design named after its year of issue – for example, the M1945.

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The unusually well-preserved camouflage paint that is visible on the helmets recovered by Mathieu became standard in July 1918. Under orders by General Ludendorff, Stahlhelme were painted according to the seasons. For example, summer colors were brown and green.

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Stunningly, though, helmets were not the only thing that Mathieu found in the dump. He also recovered a range of gas masks, among other items. Sometimes known as “the chemists’ war,” the First World War saw the deployment of a range of chemical weapons. These gas masks would have protected the wearers from deadly new threats such as mustard and chlorine gas.

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Mathieu’s discovery, then, represents a significant fragment of First World War history. However, somewhat controversially, he decided not to donate it to a museum. Instead, he would sell at least part of it to collectors – though many members of one French online forum were furious about his decision.

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However, many posters on the English-language War Relics Forum took a different view. They pointed out that without Mathieu’s hard work, the helmets would simply be rotting in the ground. Furthermore, the money earned from his sales could go to fund future relic hunts. And, in fact, many of the forum members made purchase inquiries.

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Whatever the rights and wrongs of Mathieu’s decision, though, his discovery goes to prove the value of good detective work. Buried treasure lies hidden across the battlefields of Europe – it just takes dedication and nous to find it.

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