As archaeologists we’re in a unique position. We’re confronted by the past on a day to day basis, uncovering personal stories of people and populations throughout history. It’s not uncommon to stumble upon evidence of past conflicts, but sometimes we unearth items that stop us in our tracks and ground us in reality.
During a recent excavation at Regent’s Crescent in central London we happened upon a complete but corroded First World War German helmet, concealed in what is thought to be bomb rubble from the Second World War Blitz.
We can never be sure how the helmet came to rest here or who owned it. It’s possible that it was brought back from the Western Front by a First World War veteran, but alone in the rubble, it serves as a pertinent reminder of the sacrifices made around the globe and the lasting impact of the events that took place between 1914-1918.
When soldiers returned from a long and harrowing war, they brought their experiences with them, many suffering from the physical and mental scars of war. A changed society welcomed them home: universal suffrage was within reach, and new political ideas were beginning to catch hold, from democratic socialism, to communism, to fascism. It was a society in flux. As they re-joined their families and went back to work, they had to find a new ‘normality’.
The fact this helmet was recovered from within bomb damage rubble from the Blitz adds another poignant layer. Despite claims that the Great War would be ‘the war to end all wars’, it was only 20 years later that the world found itself plunged once again into the horrors of mechanised global conflict.
As the world gathers to mark the Armistice Centenary, this helmet has brought home for us the sacrifices made, the journey of the survivors, the new society to which they returned, and the tragic fragility of the peace they craved.
The helmet was discovered during archaeological excavation ahead of development at Regent’s Crescent, a historical masterpiece of London, built in 1820 by the Prince Regent, later King George IV, to the design of John Nash - who also remodelled Buckingham Palace in 1826.