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the Hypo Helmet and the P Helmet, chem- ical-infused cloth ... THEN & NOW. Poison gas brings horror to the battleeld, be it in the Great War or today in Syria.


An ecstasy of fumbling The gas mask saved lives in the Great War. Gabriel Moshenska charts its development The use of poison gas in Syria has reminded the world of a weapon which has inspired nightmares since it was first used in combat in the First World War. In 1914, most of the warring nations began developing poison gases and in 1915 the Germans were the first to deploy chlorine at Ypres, ahead of attacking troops equipped with a mixture of mining respirators and sodium-thiosulfate soaked cloth pads. Allied casualties from the attack numbered in their thousands, and spurred efforts to develop effective gas masks. Within a month British troops were issued with Black Veil respirators: a black cloth tied around the face containing chemical-infused cotton waste. These stop-gap devices were quickly replaced by the Hypo Helmet and the P Helmet, chemical-infused cloth bags worn over the head. Millions of these were issued to front line troops in all theatres. The first modern-looking gas mask issued to British troops was the 1916 Small Box Respirator, with a rubberised, airtight mask with glass eyepieces and a separate filter. These were carried in a bag worn high on the chest for rapid deployment, and were reasonably effective. In the years before the Second World War, nations stockpiled of millions of gas masks, although the feared gas bombing of cities never happened. Today gas masks remain a vital piece of military kit, as well as a feature of policing, rubber fetishes, art, industry, and a particularly terrifying episode of Doctor Who. This instantly recognisable image of the gas mask has its roots in the trenches of the First World War, as soldiers and scientists struggled in the face of a deadly weapon.

Poison gas brings horror to the battlefield, be it in the Great War or today in Syria

Dr Gabriel Moshenska is a lecturer in Public Archaeology at the UCL Institute of Archaeology THE WORLD TODAY | DECEMBER 2013 & JANUARY 2014 | 31