UCL’s Gabe Moshenska muses on the extraordinary iconic significance of the gas mask.
My particular object of interest is the ‘General Civilian Respirator’ issued to the British people in the lead up to the Second World War. This ubiquitous mass-produced object has come to symbolise life in Home Front Britain, even though it was never used in action: the much-feared poison gas bomb attacks never materialised.
There were gas masks for adults, children, babies, horses … and even dogs.
Gas masks first became standard military equipment after the Germans pioneered chemical warfare on the Western Front of the First World War at the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915.
The first gas masks for use in warfare were developed during the First World War, when the German military pioneered the use of chlorine as a weapon – the original WMD. The first gas masks were simple filters of damp cotton (moistened in extremis with human urine), and were soon superseded by cloth bags soaked in chemicals. By the end of that conflict, the pattern for modern gas masks had been established, with a face mask, eye-pieces, a chemical filter, and a container.
The German war artist Otto Dix captured the horrors and ironies of the gas mask, which seemed to transform men into monsters on the Western Front.
In 1934, the British government asked its scientists at the Porton Down laboratory to design a civilian respirator which could be mass-produced at a unit cost of two shillings (10p today). The result was the General Civilian Respirator, familiar to the Second World War generation and to later generations from films, photographs, and stories of the period. In 1936, a disused mill in Blackburn became a gas mask assembly-plant where, by the Munich Crisis of 1938, more than 30 million gas masks had been manufactured, requiring, amongst other components, a mind-boggling 90 million safety-pins.
Young children wearing their gas masks during the Second World War.
By the outbreak of war in 1939, different versions of the civilian respirator were in use, including a colourful child’s version (the so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ mask) and another version suitable for babies. Civilians were invited to test their gas masks in mobile gas chambers full of teargas, and children were sometimes exposed to this in order to impress upon them the importance of carrying their masks.
To the wartime generation, the gas mask was an everyday presence, a minor irritant, and a constant reminder of the war. For children, the mask case was quickly adapted to become a place to hide toys and treasures.
Inception into popular culture
The enduring cultural resonance of the gas mask can be seen in the graffiti art of Banksy and the Doctor Who episode The Empty Child, while in escapist fantasies such as the Narnia television series and the film Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the gas mask is a reminder of the real world left behind Today, the civilian gas mask has become a symbol of environmental pollution, a sinister image, and a fetish object, as well as a relic of life on the Home Front of 70 years ago.
Dr Gabriel Moshenska, Institute of Archaeology, University College London