This month, one of our new volunteers, Mike Crisp has chosen this haunting object from our collection, on display in our World War One area…
‘Gas! Gas! Quick Boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And floundering like a man in fire or lime…’
“These lines from Wilfred Owen’s well-known poem conjure up for me horrific images of the fear and panic caused when chemical weapons are used against soldiers. The words describe the moment when poison gas has been released and they rush to get protective equipment on. Unfortunately one solider fails and is staggering around, suffering the effects of the gas.
At Ypres on 22nd April 1915, chlorine gas was released as a prelude to a German assault; causing the death of 800 to 1400 soldiers, with 2000 to 3000 injured. Combinations of mustard, tear and phosgene gas was also used throughout the rest of the war – causing death and massed casualties on both sides.
As an initial response to afford some protection from the gas, a directive was issued to use a field dressing soaked in bicarbonate of soda to counteract the effects of the chlorine.
Apparently soaking the dressing in urine was also effective. Following scientific advice, a pad of cotton waste impregnated with a mixture of chemicals was used, saving many lives during May 1915 but was still found to be inadequate.
Rapid development followed and the flannel hood was issued. The hood went through a number of variants depending on the type of chemicals used to impregnate the material which was designed to counteract the effects of any gas drawn through the fibres.
The hood displayed in the museum has round eye pieces which succeeded a mica window in earlier versions. A tube valve was provided, which was held between the teeth of the wearer and allowed them to expel carbon dioxide outside of the hood.
The picture (right) shows soldiers from the 4th Battalion wearing a variety of gasmasks which had been issued by the time the photo was taken in December 1915 in trenches at Armagh Wood near Zillebecke.
I chose the gas hood for my object of the month because it evoked memories of my military service in the 1970’s and 80’s when we spent considerable time training in the use of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical warfare – including endless hours wearing a respirator.
I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like to have lived and fought in those clammy, cloying, disorientating gas hoods, but during our training I do remember that there was always a mental groan on hearing the words Gas! Gas! Gas!”