Off Beat: ‘War Horse’ gives nod to helmet

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The film “War Horse” offers several examples of how military tactics and technology can bounce from era to era, including a nod to an artifact that’s been at a Vancouver heritage site for almost a century.

The movie’s first combat scene, set in the opening stages of World War I, shows a British cavalry squadron slashing through fleeing Germans … until (spoiler alert!) the saber-swinging horsemen are mowed down by machine guns.

Another example of overlapping eras is more understated. In scenes depicting trench warfare, a few soldiers on both sides of no man’s land can be seen wearing something metallic under their uniform jackets: steel breastplates that might have been inspired by medieval armor.

An even more eye-catching example of that sort of throwback gear is a treasured artifact at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. It’s a visored helmet that (other than the olive-drab paint job) would have looked right at home on Sir Lancelot.

There’s a good reason for that, said Les Jensen, curator of arms and armor at the West Point Museum.

“It’s part of a group of helmets designed by Bashford Dean,” Jensen told The Columbian a few years ago in a story about the helmet. “He was a major in the ordnance department and assigned to design body armor. He also was curator of arms and armor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

“A lot of the helmets he designed had a very medieval look because he was copying what was in the collection. A whole bunch of these experimental helmets were designed. One or two actually saw some service, but the vast majority never made it past the experimental stage,” Jensen said.

Puzzling discovery

Fort Vancouver’s steel helmet was recovered in 1971 during excavations just northeast of the reconstructed stockade, said Bob Cromwell, a National Park Service archaeologist. It probably was manufactured by the Ford Motor Co. in November 1918, Cromwell said.

It’s officially a U.S. Army Model 8 helmet, Cromwell said, and only 1,300 were made. But how it wound up at what was then part of Vancouver Barracks … well, “It’s beyond me,” Cromwell told The Columbian.

— Tom Vogt

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.