By Martin Malone
The helmet has been with me for 43 years, give or take some relatively short separations. For a while, it hung on a ceiling beam in my brother’s pub in Castlebar, alongside a Ghurkha Kukri knife and some other military memorabilia.
I was thirteen, when my grandfather called round by appointment to an old woman’s house in Cardiff, to replace a window in her bathroom. I can’t recall her name, but we got along well. While my grandfather mixed putty and set to the job, she showed me her late husband’s military sword, and told me that he served with the Engineers in World War I. She said he never spoke about the war, and she never pressed him to discuss it – he used to be such a smiler, she said. But that was before he went to France.
Before leaving her house, she handed me his helmet. Insisted, after I’d declined. I didn’t think it right. So, I walked down the street, with the chinstrap over my shoulder, and the helmet tipping against my upper back.
A dirt brown World War I helmet. It has a dent, a bruising of metal, and I often wonder if it deflected shrapnel or a piece of flying from a wearer, or if there is some more mundane reason for its existence. But I prefer to think that the helmet saved a skull from harm.
The helmet has been with me through the brightest and darkest days of my life. A ghostly, yet tangible, object that at times I think to get rid of, to donate to a military museum, and perhaps that is where it will eventually end up.
But prior to that happening, I’ve decided that it’s high time to get to know the man who owned the helmet. The person who wore it in trenches of World War I, who was an engineer – did he build bridges, lay mines….what sort of work did he do back in Wales? Did he have children? There is so much that I don’t know about the helmet’s origins.
Through resources on the internet, I know the helmet was manufactured in 1914, and that it is described in relevant websites as being a World War I helmet, the earliest prototype – it matches the photographs displayed on the internet: brown in colour, leather chinstrap, leather cross-section holding a crown of fibreglass in situ, a netting under its black lining.
My helmet smells of its age – of dust, frayed and worn leather, long dried in perspiration. Inside, its rim is a hallmark, something like an ‘A’ and definitely a ‘H’. Also, in red, the owner’s rank and name….Lt for Lieutentant. ‘J’ is his initial and Tomlinson his surname.
There is another word but it’s not illegible….I think, though, it may read Captain. Which, if my guess is correct, means that my man had been promoted. For valour, I wonder, or simply a move up the ladder, to step into the shoes of his comrades who’d been killed or wounded in action.
I have a name for my helmet. It’s properly known as a Brodie type helmet, called after its designer. I call it ‘J’. Over a million of these were manufactured, the demand driven by the astonishing amount of manpower lost from head wounds – soldiers, prior to the introduction of the iron helmet, used to merely wear cloth caps – these afforded no protection against flying bits of steel and stone.
There is a British Forces website that reveals a list of all the Tomlinsons that served in that World War. Loads of J. Tomlinsons. I have a feeling that I’m soon going to know a little bit more about my man, so I’ve decided to wait out, a little…just to whet the appetite.
Sometimes, I ask myself why that old woman gave a First World Ware helmet to a boy whom she didn’t know? I can’t remember her first name, and I’m annoyed that I have a scant recollection of what we had talked about over tea and plain digestive biscuits. Annoyed too, that I hadn’t paid much attention to the framed photographs on the walls and mantlepiece, that I left her house carrying much and yet also paradoxically, so very little.
I’d reason to think of the First World War when I was in Iraq with the UN – we drove through the Iraqi army’s deep, muddy, trenches – not unlike those of 1914. The serpentine way wider than a country road and deep enough to stack fifteen coffins on top of each other….I occasionally think of J’s hands gripping the rim of his helmet, of him adjusting his chin strap, because the helmet didn’t sit right, a common problem, and the friction rash the movement caused, the fear in his eyes, the torment under that iron hat, a thousand and one thoughts fusing into a single prayer to survive, to get home, to rediscover his smile. I hope that he did, at least sometimes, in spite of having been told that he didn’t.