At first appearance, this helmet looks like any other one of the millions of khaki green steel helmets which are now synonymous with the World War I soldier and trench warfare in general. However, on closer inspection the large hole near the top of the helmet, which has torn through the steel and the inner lining, becomes glaringly obvious and suggests something more morbid.
What a lot of people may not realise is that the steel helmet was still an experimental item at the beginning of World War I and that for the first year of the war, including at Gallipoli, the men went into battle with no real head protection. The first British helmets didn’t arrive on the front lines until September 1915. Originally they were only issued to a battalion, each battalion was assigned 50 helmets which were to be kept in the trench stores until needed. These would remain in this fixed location and made available to be used by each battalion as they moved in and out of that area of the battlefield. Helmets remained part of trench store supplies until the summer of 1916 when production had reached 1 million units and there were enough available to start issuing them to each individual soldier. This was just as well for Alan Rout, for had he not been wearing a helmet on the morning of the 26th September 1916, it is very likely he would not have survived the shrapnel shell which tore through his helmet and lessened what would otherwise have been a fatal blow.
Alan Clifford Rout was born in Nelson on the 21st February 1891, the youngest of three sons of William and Eliza Rout. Prior to the war, Alan had attended Nelson College and had studied to be an architect. Alan was also a noted musician having studied at the Nelson School of Music during his youth. He played both the piano and the organ at various fundraising events such as the Empire Defence Fund and the Belgium Relief Fund in Nelson shortly before he left for the war and would continue to play at various community events in the years following his return.
Alan enlisted for service with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force on the 30th November 1914 and embarked overseas for Egypt as a 2nd Lieutenant with the 3rd Reinforcements on the 14th February 1915. Lieutenant Rout went on to serve with the Canterbury Infantry Regiment at Gallipoli where he was wounded in action on the 25th June 1915 receiving multiple shrapnel wounds to his right buttock. He was evacuated to England where he was admitted to Hornchurch Hospital (Grey Towers) where he spent most of the following year recuperating. Alan was discharged from Hornchurch on the 6th June 1916 and embarked for France to rejoin his unit (now posted to the 1st Battalion of the Canterbury Infantry Regiment) in the field the following day.
The injury that caused this impressive hole in his helmet, occurred on the 26th September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. Lieutenant Rout had been charged with taking a water party up to the front lines in the area known as Fleurs and was talking to his Brigade Major when the Germans unleashed an artillery barrage overtop of their trench.
Alan Rout’s diary entry from that day reads as follows:
“An H. E. [high explosive] shrapnel burst right overhead and I got a terrific crack on my steel helmet. I was a bit dazed at first and thought the shrapnel hadn’t gone through my helmet; but when the blood began to stream down my face I knew I had a crack somewhere.”
Alan was reported as wounded in action two days later and was recorded as being dangerously ill at the Duchess of Westminster (No 1 British Red Cross Society) Hospital at Touquet, France. Alan was found to have a compound fracture to the skull and was operated on during the night of the 28th September to remove a small piece of bone and to mend a broken vein. As luck would have it, upon being evacuated to a dressing station two days earlier, Alan had passed by the tent of his brother Charles at Mametz Wood (Charles Rout had trained as a doctor and was serving with the British Army as a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps). Charles was able to assess the injury and recommend that his brother was operated on as soon as possible. The surgeons were said to remark on Alan’s incredible recovery following the operation and that he had been very lucky to live, this was no doubt due to his helmet, which took much of the impact and the fortunate intervention of his brother.
Alan was then sent to England where he was admitted to No 1 New Zealand General Hospital at Brockenhurst, where he was declared to be unfit for duty on account of his injury and after a period of convalescence, embarked for New Zealand on the 13th November 1916. Alan Rout was officially discharged on the 15th March 1917.
However, the head injury he received during the war would impact Alan for the rest of his life. He had a permanent indentation on the top of his head which he was no doubt self-conscious of as he was known to always wear a hat when out in public. The injury also caused him to have frequent headaches and difficulty concentrating for long periods of time. As a result, Alan did not continue his career as an architect as he had intended to do before the war. Instead, he worked as a registered valuer and later took over from his father as the Managing Secretary on the Trust Board of the Cawthron Institute (a local organisation based in Nelson specialising in promoting scientific research). Alan also served as the secretary of the Nelson Rotary Club for over 25 years and as the secretary of the Nelson Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society.
Despite his change in career path, Alan was still able to put his architectural training to use; he designed both his own house in Nelson as well as the home of one of his brothers. Alan married Hilda Isabell Ryrie in late 1928 and had four children. Alan Rout died of stomach cancer in Nelson on the 25th September 1956 aged 65 and is interred in the RSA section of Wakapuaka Cemetery.
The National Army Museum is very fortunate to have an excellent collection of Lieutenant Rout’s belongings from World War I which include not only this unique helmet, but also his diary, medal group, compass, binoculars and sword. These were very generously donated by his daughter, Mrs Helen McBride in 2017.
Brenden Shirley, Collection Technician