The vivid scenery in Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est helps me to recall that many people of all nationalities went through terrifying experiences with chemical warfare during the First World War. Until I began working at the Fredericton Region Museum, the vivid imagery remained just a part of the poem. I could picture the most chilling lines of the poem, but it still remained just an image in my mind. Once I started working with some of the objects of the First World War, the imagery became much more vivid.
The objects that really evoked these feelings were the gas masks. We are quite fortunate here at the museum to have a First World War era British Small Box Respirator. Gas masks like this were an incredibly important part of a soldier’s kit. They were critical if a soldier wished to survive a gas attack and fight another day. Owen’s description of a man who failed to put his mask on in time helps to show how important the gas mask was.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!–An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
(Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum Est)
While examining the Small Box Respirator it is easy to see what Wilfred Owen means by “an ecstasy of fumbling”. Within seconds of a gas alarm you had to remove your helmet, remove your respirator from the haversack around your neck, place it over your head, clamp the nose piece on to your nose and bite down on the breathing tube. All of this had to be done without breathing in any of the gases floating towards your lines.
Inside of the mask is a small breathing tube, as well as a clamp that pinches your nose shut. This ensured that even if the mask was not airtight that you could still breathe safely. This clamp was a common complaint with the mask, as it would get uncomfortable the longer the mask was worn. Also, heat would slowly build up inside the mask, making it even more uncomfortable to wear. During the short time I was handling the mask I was wearing a modern respirator that only covered my mouth and nose. Even though I had been wearing the respirator for less than half an hour it was already becoming uncomfortable for me to wear this modern respirator because of the heat building up inside of it.
Another problem that Owen alludes to in his poem is visibility. These early gas masks had glass lenses, which would fog up over time. Eventually there was the development of masks that vented air over the lenses to demist them as seen with the Tissot mask, as well as the use of anti-fog materials like in British Small Box Respirators and German gas masks.
Despite the discomforts and low visibility the Small Box Respirator was an effective piece of kit. The filters on these gas masks lasted twice as long as their contemporaries due to the simple addition of an exhaust valve to the mask’s stem. As a soldier exhaled, the valve would allow air to go through this valve rather than back through the filter. Another feature of this mask is that the canvas was rubberized. This meant that the mask would fit snugly over the face and create an airtight seal. This design saved many lives in the First World War, and the updated version of the Small Box Respirator would continue to see use in the Second World War.
The entire kit of the Small Box Respirator. The hose that attaches the canister (upper right corner) to the mask is missing. The haversack is heavily stained. During combat, the canister would be stored in the right pocket of the haversack on top of a metal spring. As air came in the bottom of the canister, this spring prevented the canister from sticking to the bottom of the haversack and restricting air flow (YSHS/FRM 1969.964.1a-c).
Another view of the Small Box Respirator. You can see the air intake valve on the bottom of the canister. (YSHS/FRM 1969.964.1a-c)
Inside the mask. You can see the nose clamp as well as the breathing tube. The lenses on this mask have yellowed over the last 97 years. You can also see the rubber on the inside of the canvas that helped to seal the mask against the user’s face. The “3” on the inside of the nose clamp denotes that this is a medium size mask. (YSHS/FRM 1969.964.1a).
Remember to play it safe when dealing with artifacts! You never know what chemicals they may have come into contact with. Nitrile gloves and a respirator are a must when dealing with objects that may have been contaminated with chemical agents. (Photo credit: Clinton Gillespie)
Written by Tom MacDonald (Collections Assistant, Fredericton Region Museum 2014)