Steel Helmets of The Great War – South African Infantry

With the introduction of the steel helmet in 1915, it wasn’t long before British, and it’s then Empire, troops began to embellish them with unit signs. These ‘distinguishing marks’ as they were known were intended to identify the unit of the wearer. Some markings were as simple as a cap badge soldered to the front of the helmet, whilst others consisted of more complex painted marks in a variety of shapes and colours.

The South African Brigade were no exception, and adopted a system of painted markings on the helmet, which identified which regiment the soldier belonged to. Unfortunately my research into these markings is not quite as comprehensive as I would like, although I’m sure the answer may lie in a South African archive somewhere.

My interest into the South African helmet markings of the Great War came about purely by chance. I had come across an originally marked Mark I Steel Helmet (Often referred to as a Brodie helmet, after it’s designer), and had not been able to identify which unit the markings belong to (from my research into British distinguishing marks). A few months later I stumbled across a picture of a helmet with the same markings online, in a well established private collection of South African militaria. I could finally confirm the helmet belonged to the 2nd South African Infantry. In hindsight, I probably could have come to this conclusion a little quicker, as the seller had stated it had come out of South Africa!

Original WW1 helmet belonging to the 2nd South African Infantry

Having now established the unit this helmet belonged to, I had also come away with a good understanding of the helmet markings used by the South African Infantry (SAI) during the Great War. It can be extremely difficult to find these originally marked helmets now (especially South African examples), with fraudulently marked helmets being passed off as original flooding the market. I was therefore rather surprised when around a year later, I came across another marked helmet, being advertised as having a potential cavalry regiment marking. From my in-depth research of British cavalry distinguishing marks, I knew this wasn’t the case, and happily knew it was a South African marking. The marking was that used by the 1st South African Infantry, and is similar in style to the of the previously shown 2nd SAI marking.

Original WW1 helmet belonging to the 1st South African Infantry

Both of these helmets had been listed with the markings unknown, and I was therefore able to acquire them well below market value, to catalogue as part of my ongoing research into distinguishing marks. Sadly, I no longer own either of them. In 2019, an example marked to the 4th South African Infantry also came up for sale, with a very nice officers private purchase liner. Sadly this sold for well above my meagre budget! Had I known then that I would come across both the 1st SAI and 2nd SAI examples, I may have been a little more tempted to stretch for it!

I believe helmet markings were adopted by the South African Brigade very late in the war, sometime after leaving 9th (Scottish) Division in September 1918. The steel helmet markings used are as follows:

1st South African Infantry – A narrow black band round the bottom of the ‘bowl’ of the helmet. On each sided is painted a light blue patch, with a diagonal white band through the centre, from bottom left to top right.

1st South African Infantry Helmet Marking

2nd South African Infantry – A narrow black band round the bottom of the ‘bowl’ of the helmet. On each sided is painted a dark blue (navy) patch with a orange stripe through the centre, from top to bottom. These colours are supposedly to represent the provinces of Natal and Orange Free State.

2nd South African Infantry Helmet Marking

3rd South African Infantry – Disbanded in February 1918, and therefore unlikely to have used these helmet markings.

4th South African Infantry (South African Scottish)- A narrow black band round the bottom of the ‘bowl’ of the helmet. On each sided is painted a dark blue/black patch, with a red St Andrews cross on top. I have also seen an example with a white St Andrews cross.

4th South African Infantry Helmet Marking

I would be delighted to hear from anyone who could provide further information into these South African markings, or indeed owns an original example.

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