Gas Attack - Keep Calm and Don't Panic!

BACKGROUND PICTURE: One of the most haunting images of the first world war. Painting by John Singer Sargent after witnessing a group of soldiers blinded by mustard gas.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

An Image of Wilfred Owen

Extract of poem written between October 1917 and March 1918 by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918).

The Latin title of this poem means "Sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country.".

"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.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning."

Horrors of the First World War

By the time of the Munich Crisis in September 1939 everyone in Britain had been issued with a gas mask. The horrors of soldiers returning from the Western Front in 1918 and the effect gas had on them was still fresh in peoples minds. Thousands of crippled ex-servicemen were living reminders of what gas could do. It was a weapon that could kill or maim scores of people caught in its grasp in minutes.

Gas was therefore still perceived with the outbreak of war to be the main weapon that would be used in an attack at home. People were scared and apprehensive.

An Image of a Gas Mask

PICTURE: Gas Masks had been issued to everyone by the time of the Munich Crisis in 1938

Preparing for the Worst

An Image of Literature for Putting a Gas Mask on

PICTURE: 'How to put on your gas mask' literature

An Image of a typical 'Gas Warning Sign'

PICTURE: A typical 'Gas Warning Sign'

Examples of Gas Masks

The 'Mickey Mouse' Gas Mask

It is fair to say that many people hated gas masks, complaining they found it hard to breathe and the smell of rubber and disinfectant could be over bearing. Children were issued with Mickey Mouse gas masks which they seemed to take quite happily to. This brightly coloured gas mask was an attempt to try to make it more appealing to children and it succeeded to a point. The resemblance to Mickey Mouse however was questionable (in our opinion - what do you think?). See the image to the right which gives an example of this type of gas mask.

An Image of a 'Mickey Mouse' Gas Mask

PICTURE: 'Mickey Mouse' Gas Mask design for children

A 'Gas Helmet' for Babies

PICTURE: 'Parents try out Gas Helmet for their baby'

'Gas Helmet' for Babies

A 'gas helmet' was designed by Mr. E.W. Mills of Kent that could be used for babies. It comprised of a small airtight chamber into which filtered air was provided by means of hand bellows. An example of this type of 'gas helmet' can be seen below. As you can see it enveloped the whole baby.

The Phoney War grips Britain

The issue of gas masks was, initially, taken very seriously and everyone was careful to ensure they carried them at all times. However, as the war began to drag on and the fear of gas attack subsided many people began to leave their gas masks at home and get careless. The 'Phoney War' or 'Bore War' descended on Britain and a sense of unrealism gripped Britain as the war seemed more and more distant.

An idea of the drop in people carrying their gas masks could be seen by the numbers left behind in trains and buses in London. In September 1940 the figure was up to 2000 a week. By early 1942 it was just 400.


Man's Best Friend

Dogs and cats were not forgotten in all the initial panic and many pet owners were advised to send their animals to the country. This however did not stop countless animals being destroyed unnecessarily in the first weeks of the war.

Simple guidelines were drawn up for people particularly dog owners. If taking your dog for a walk you were advised to be near a shelter. It was publically declared that animals were allowed in public shelters. If an attack did occur then cotton wool over dogs ears were a good measure. Bromide or tranquilisers could also be used if really necessary.

A dog's gas mask was provided but unfortunately dogs come in all sorts of shapes and sizes so it proved very difficult to design a universal mask for dogs. Anyway, most dogs frantically tried to get the masks off even if they did fit!

An Image of a Dog Carrying a Gas Mask

PICTURE: 'Man's Best Friend' carrying his gas mask!


As for cats? An ARP broadcast in 1939 said it all:

"Don't worry about your cats. They can look after themselves. Your cat will probably meet you when you get into the shelter!"

Gas-Proof Kennels?

The National Canine Defence League designed a special kennel to protect smaller animals against gas.

It was composed of a steel cylinder which was closed at one end. A gas-proof cover with a glass window would be fitted at the other end once the dog was inside. These were however not widely distributed.

An Image of a Drawing Representing a 'Gas Proof Kennel' with an Air Filter

PICTURE: 'Gas Proof Kennel' (with Air Filter)

Humourous Images from the Home Front

However it was not all doom and gloom and the British proved that even in the darkest days of the war they had a great sense of humour. The following is a selection of humorous/odd quotes/images from the Home Front related to Gas Attack.

Playground Song, 1938

"Under the spreading chestnut tree, Neville Chamberlain said to me:

'If you want to get your gas mask free, join the blinking A.R.P!'"

An Image of a Couple of Neighbours Talking Whilst Wearing Gas Masks

PICTURE: Neighbours pass the time of day!

An Image Showing a Man with Beans on his Gas Mask after Dinner

PICTURE: A humorous poke at the wearing of Gas Masks

Children's Games

Even when playing their favourite games children could not entirley get away from the Gas Mask. The popular game of 'Vacuation was one such example. See below for a sample card from this game.

This card allowed the player an extra turn and was probably the only time children were glad to receive a gas mask! To see more games played (at Christmas time click here - Games)

An Image Displaying a few Cards from the Popular 'Game of 'Vacuation'

PICTURE: 'Game of 'Vacuation' - A selection of cards from this popular children's game