The face of war changed forever when, on April 22nd, 1915, the Germans threw caution—and roughly 150 tons of chlorine—to the wind, gassing two French Colonial divisions along the Ypres front. Since then, the Great War has become inextricably linked to ominously coloured and suffocating gas clouds. Equally iconic are the ghoulish masks designed to deter it. While we are fortunate not to have to venture into miasmic puffs capable of boiling flesh or flooding lungs, masks have once again become commonplace amidst Covid-19’s New Normal. As we pass through the second wave of infections, it seems only appropriate that we examine the strategies adopted by the Canadian Expeditionary Forces as they faced their New Normal of wave after wave of gas on the Western Front.
Then as now, the key to navigating these new hazards was a combination of speed and discipline. The broadest example of this dynamic involved simply producing sufficient masks and getting them to the front before the next cloud was unleashed. To this end, the British military and government called on Britain’s women to produce face coverings as fast as possible. These cotton pads, 30,000 of which were produced 36 hours following the call, quickly shipped to the waiting soldiers where they were soaked in a neutralizing agent and held over the mouth and nose. This first generation of the gas mask was difficult to use, and only occasionally successful at stopping gas but—much like in our current predicament—anything was better than nothing.
1915 was a year of shortages across the Western Front. As the British focused on making up for significant shell shortages, novel solutions had to be found to perfect gas respirators. Amidst this scarcity, widow’s veils—thin black veils traditionally worn over the head following the death of a husband, usually for extended mourning periods—were depressingly widely available and coincidently produced excellent filters when soaked in neutralising solution. These Black Veil Respirators marked the second generation of masks. While a notable improvement, they nonetheless had their shortcomings, particularly in the duration of their effectiveness. It wouldn’t be until 1916 that a gas mask recognisable as such—the small box respirator or SBR for short—would be developed. After the SBR, gas masks became sufficiently advanced to make the choked air of the Western Front habitable if not comfortable.
With a reliable supply of protective masks, the primary determinant of gas casualties became the speed and discipline of the individual. Soldiers were reminded to cover their noses, they were trained to place, adjust, and remove their mask safely, and they were constantly reminded to keep their masks on hand whenever they left the ‘safety’ of their dugouts. Incredibly, the threat of excruciating pain, burning throats, and fluid-filled lungs were insufficient encouragement to adhere to proper mask discipline for many soldiers. Eerily mirroring our own time, there are accounts of soldiers neglecting to not cover their noses when faced with on-coming gas. The threat to manpower and morale, however, was recognised by the upper echelons of the Army. Even though gas only—immediately—killed a relatively small amount of the people that inhaled it, the recovery time for gassings could be many weeks; this length could be devastating if gassing became widespread. At the same time, the sight of blistered and choking comrades terrified and demoralised soldiers, further reducing fighting efficiency.
In the Canadian Corps’ case, a Gas Service was established to study the effects of gas and to implement methods for combating it. This service trained personnel in proper discipline and made sure they stuck to it. As the war progressed, the gas war evolved and became more complex. By 1918, mustard gas, a more deadly and difficult to neutralise chemical agent, was widely used; it was often mixed with irritants and fired directly into trenches via gas shells. Soldiers coughed, sneezed, and even vomited within their masks, constantly tempted to remove their sole source of protection. Worse still, droplets clung to soldiers’ uniforms and evaporated later, in the safety of dugouts, causing even more casualties. The Canadian Corps Gas Service did its job well, adapting to every new hurdle. They quickly implemented rules ordering soldiers to change their uniforms and to wash their hands upon entering or leaving dugouts. Constant training and rigid discipline meant that even when unfortunate soldiers found themselves puking in their masks, they kept them on through the discomfort.
In developing and training for mask discipline, the Canadian Corps Gas Service sought to overcome the reluctance of Canadian military personnel to wear protective face coverings. Discomfort, helplessness, and doubt were all factors that they struggled against in implementing what to us now seems like a rational protective response. Now, as we struggle through our second COVID-19 wave, and the exhaustion, suspicion, and fear that come with it, we could all draw on some of the practical advice used against one of the First World War’s most terrifying weapons. In the spirit of the Canadian Corps Gas Service: make sure your mask is in good order, make sure you know how to put it on, and make sure to keep it on you whenever you leave your dugout.
Thanks to these works
Cook, Tim, “Canada and Gas Warfare”. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Article published February 13, 2019; Last Edited March 05, 2019. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/canada-and-gas-warfare.
Cook, Tim. No Place to Run : The Canadian Corps and Gas Warfare in the First Wold War. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1999. https://www.deslibris.ca/ID/404309.
Giannakoudakis, Dimitrios A., and Teresa J. Bandosz. Detoxification of Chemical Warfare Agents. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-70760-0.
Girard, Marion Leslie. A Strange and Formidable Weapon: British Responses to World War I Poison Gas. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008. muse.jhu.edu/book/11825.
Grayzel, S. R. “Defence Against the Indefensible: The Gas Mask, the State and British Culture during and after the First World War.” Twentieth Century British History 25, no. 3 (September 1, 2014): 418–34. https://doi.org/10.1093/tcbh/hwu035.
Grayzel, Susan R. “The Baby in the Gas Mask: Motherhood, Wartime Technology, and the Gendered Division Between the Fronts During and After the First World War.” In Gender and the First World War, edited by Christa Hämmerle, Oswald Überegger, and Birgitta Bader Zaar, 127–43. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2014. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137302205_8.
Feature Image: “Two Soldiers wearing gas masks examining a Lee Enfield” March 1917, W.I. Castle/Canada. Ministère de la défense nationale/Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, PA-001027.
Figure 1: “Gas helmet drill, 92nd Highlanders,” August 15 1916, Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada, PA-022718.
Figure 2: “Tear Gas Goggles” Private Arsène Bélanger, 1915-1919, Collections CCGW.
Figure 3: “SBR Mask” 1916-1919, Collections CCGW.
Figure 4: “Canadians wearing gas masks bringing in wounded. Battle of Amiens,” August 1918, Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada, PA-002863.
By Cain Doerper