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Genêts and the man who saved a million lives in WW1

Match! Now what will we find down this road…

A walk through Genêts took us to an old church and a very unusual memorial.  The memorial is for General Louis Auguste Adrian.  An understated man who probably saved more lives in WW1 than anyone else.

Hang on, why is there a plain helmet on this huge memorial?

A brilliant man with a modest background

Louis was not a famous general, he could lay no claim to clever battle plans and never led armies to hard won victory. But every year the grave of this determined, creative man is honoured and millions of people today owe him their life.  Louis was a supply officer, and an unusually talented one.

Life for Louis began in 1859 far from Normandy at Metz, but when Germany took the town in 1871 the Adrian family left to ‘stay French’.  Metz would not be returned to France until after WW1. This disruption and the following years while his family tried to find a permanent home did not stop Louis wining the ‘Grand Prize’ in 1878, awarded annually to the very best students in France.

There is a description of Louis in the records of the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique.  It could not describe a more ordinary young man; ‘Light brown hair, ordinary front, medium nose, blue eye, medium mouth, round chin, oval face, size 170’.

However behind this unremarkable exterior Louis was living up to his early promise. He studied engineering then Applied engineering before being commissioned as a Lieutenant with the 3rd Arras Regiment.  By 1885 he was a Captain and in Cherbourg, working on the construction of the barracks and coastal defences.

Cherbourg, 1885 from Illustration magazine


later in 1885 the French government decided to send a military force to Madagascar.  Louis was heavily involved planning the complex logistics of relocating thousands of soldiers to live and fight in a strange land.  He went with them and on that inhospitable island Louis’s skills were severely tested.

Fortunately for the soldiers on Madagascar, Louis was a supply genius and determined problem solver.  Not content to accept what the military said was sufficient for its soldiers, Louis always looked for ways to make their lives a little better, when he could.  He improved roads, managed the building of bridges and light barracks.

Louis’ dedication and the climate wore him down and he was repatriated to France for his health in December 1885.  Back in Cherbourg Louis met and married the very charming Marguerite Pigeon, niece of the priest of Genêts.

Making enemies over beds

Over the next few years Louis had a solid government career. In 1904 he was tasked with hunting down fraud and corruption within army supplies and did so tirelessly.  Supplying armies makes fortunes and Louis’ investigation made him many enemies as well as earning him the Légion d’Honneur in 1912 for ‘exceptional services rendered on the occasion of the takeover by the State of the equipment of the contractors of military beds’.  He must have saved them a great deal of money.

Louis was never strong and the ministry agreed to his early retirement in 1913. He settled into the family home at Genêts, Normandy.  Around this time he did a little work for a group of beef farmers in Venezuela, developing a prefabricated easily transportable cattle shed whose later use none of them could foresee.

Invaluable ingenuity

When the Great War broke out Louis requested to return to work. Knowing his talent as a supply officer and the challenge ahead, Louis’ request was enthusiastically accepted.

He was assigned Assistant Director of Stewardship for the Ministry of War with responsibility for clothing and equipping France’s new armies. He acted quickly, liberating 4,000 tons of cloth and wool from Lille, just before the German army marched in on 14 October 1914. The liberated fabric was soon being worn as uniform.

Always on the side of the soldier, Louis’ ingenuity was invaluable.  His ideas included commissioning sheepskin jerkins for the first harsh winter of the war, redesigned infantry packs to better distribute the load (and make more comfortable) and insisting on supplying strong boots that would stand up to trench life.

It would not be long before Louis would make a greater, historic contribution to the war effort.

This black and white photo of French soldiers off to war in 1914 does not do justice to the bright red trousers and polished mess kits that made ‘le Poilu ‘ easy targets against the countryside they would be fighting in.

A new sort of war

It was a very different sort of war. Solders were spending weeks in wed muddy trenches as bombs exploded around them.  They were given respite away from the front, only to sleep in wet, cold tents, tents that were fast becoming in short supply. Louis proposed and had approved his Venezuelan cattle sheds for sturdy temporary accommodation.

He knew the barracks, approved in August, would be desperately needed by the winter of 1915. Louis did not hesitate to go against usual procedures and spread production across 200 companies.  Soon fifty barracks were being produced every day. The ‘Adrian barrack’ design would be in use by armies well into the second world war.

Highly portable Adrian barracks

Death from above

Trench warfare soon revealed a new horrific way to die that had nothing to do with bullets. It wasn’t that the Poilu, the infantry, were still wearing a uniform Napoleon would recognise with attention seeking red trousers, it was their felt caps.   77% of injuries among the ordinary soldier were horrific head injuries from bomb blasts and shrapnel.  More than 80% of these injuries were fatal.

While a new uniform was planned (initially a weave made up of colours from the tricolour flat until  they realised red dye had been imported from Germany…) Louis was tackling the problem of protective headgear.

French military uniforms at the beginning of WW1

Resistance to the first trench helmet

He came up with a simple skull cap, la Cervelière, to fit under regulation felt caps or ‘kepi’. But in the autumn of 1914 there was still confidence the war would soon be over.  The Grand Quartier Général was unwilling to commit to spending money on thousands of skull caps that would probably not be needed.  Louis argued hard with his superior General Joffre for their production.  Fortunately for many lives, he succeeded.

On 21 February 1915 the ministry, on the recommendation of General Joffre, approved la Cervelière.  By the spring of 1915 around 700,000 skull caps of .5mm metal, had been made.  The practical Poilu took to wearing them over their caps for comfort and rumours still persist they doubled as cooking pots.

The protection la Cervelière offered was only partially successful but clearly saved many lives.  General Joffre commissioned Louis to come up with something even better.

Wearing la Cervelière in the trenches

Meeting the challenge to save lives

Louis set about designing a helmet that offered both increased protection and comfort. It had to weigh as little as possible yet be strong and easy to manufacture in large quantities.  Louis Kuhn at the Japy factory is thought to have fine-tuned Louis’ design for manufacture.

The ‘M15’ was approved at the end of April 1915 and production began immediately. It took a month for the 15 manufacturers to produce a helmet that met Louis’ high standards and at first production was slow; the Japy factory was contracted to supply 529,000 by 1 August, 1915 but only managed 141,000.  Then, pushed by Louis and the needs of war production began to speed up.  By September 52,000 helmets were produced monthly.

Louis wrote in August 1915 “Our helmet received the baptism of fire. It is proved that he preserves in a very considerable proportion the troops which are provided with it”.

The M15 ‘Adrian’ helmet

The Poilu were initially unimpressed.  René Armand with the French infantry wrote about his unit’s reception of the ‘Adrians’ in September 1915: “We shrieked with laughter when we tried them on, as if they were carnival hats”. Carnival hats that would go on to save thousands, if not millions of lives.

‘Uses for the new Adrian helmet’ WW1 postcard

By the end of 1915 it is estimated that over three million Adrian helmets had been distributed.  They were even cheap to produce, costing 3.35 francs compared to the regulation cap that cost 3.80 francs each. The British equivalent cost around 16 francs.

The benefits of the ‘Adrian’ to the French armies were immediate; by 1916 head wounds had dropped to 22% and ‘only’ half were fatal.

Head protection WW1 has a dramatic effect on the number wounded

Simple strength

The M15 helmet was made of .7 mm sheet steel in 4 pieces; shell, visor and neck guard. Sized small, medium and large, they weighed roughly 700g and featured a badge at the front; for the infantry a flaming grenade. The first helmets were painted light grey/blue with sheepskin liners and a chin-strap.  Goat soon replaced sheep, being more hard wearing.

Unfortunately the pale blue paint was too shiny, catching the light and endangering wearers as it showed up some distance away. Mud smeared to obscure the brightness and fabric helmet covers distributed were soon realised to carry infection in the grim trench conditions, making any injury considerably worse.  Both were banned and the colour changed.

Camembert ‘Le Poilu’ cheese label showing the early shiny blue Adrian helmet

Oh those officers

Manufacturers not involved in the production of the Adrian helmet (only 15 had been chosen to make the Adrian, from 50 considered) started to create versions costing 20-25 francs aimed at the officer classes. The linings were fancier but the helmets themselves too rigid, often fracturing into splinters when struck by shrapnel.  General Joffre banned them.

Life saving style sells

Seven million Adrian helmets were distributed by the end of 1916. Their reputation was so impressive France started to sell Adrian helmets to foreign armies charging 6 francs each.  Italy bought 1,600,000, Russia 340,000, Belgium 208,000, Serbia 123,000, Romania 90,000, Holland 10,000.

By the end of the war over 20 million Adrian helmets had been made and countless lives saved.

WW1 French soldier with fine Adrian helmet and sensible grey trousers.

After the war

On 18 December 1918 a decree was made to award each French officer and solder a ceremonial Adrian helmet and with it a brass plaque that fitted over the visor inscribed ‘Soldat de la Grande Guerre 1914-1918’ (Soldier of the Great War 1914-1918).

Louis’ barracks were used as temporary housing after the war and still in use during the Second World War.

The Adrian helmet remained standard military issue in the French army, evolving slightly into the even stronger M26 for World War II, and was also used by the French police into the 1960’s.

Louis the inventor

Louis methods were not always popular and throughout his career he faced detractors, some jealously suggesting he benefited financially from the production of the Adrian helmet. He was of course exonerated.  After the war Louis continued to invent, developing body armour, splash goggles, armoured turrets for aviators, and even studying solar energy.

Louis was awarded Grand Officier de la Légion d’Honneur on June 16, 1920.  Exhausted and unwell he retired to his peaceful property at Genêts overlooking the bay of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy.  Louis died in the military hospital Val-de-Grace on 8 August 1933.

General Louis Auguste Adrian not wearing his own helmet standing next to a very large gun – Manche Archives

Pay your respects to a determined man

Louis’ grave is easy to find in the graveyard at Genêts, it’s the one with the Adrian helmet on top.  A fitting tribute to probably the most remarkable supply officer war has ever known.


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