Even if there were patents, known processes and early stages of respiratory protective equipment before early 20th century, the modern gas masks development occurred during the First World War in order to protect soldiers from new chemical weapons used during the conflict. Let’s take a look at the WW1 gas mask history.
Chemical weapons during WW1
Early 20th century chemical weapons
Since the antiquity, chemical – and biological – weapons have been used in combat. Historians report that poisons (rye ergot, hellebore root, curare) were used in most of wars and military conflicts that occurred through the ages. At the end of 19th century, wars – particularly the Crimean War and the American Civil War – privileged production of artillery weapons such as canons. Yet, at that time, chemical weapons are also being developed and shells filled with sulfur oxide, picric acid or chlorine were used by headquarters. Before WW1 started, France also created a suffocating grenade. In the early 20th century, the German Empire chemical industry was very developed and this country quickly became a world leader for chemistry and could swiftly develop the chemical weapons that evolved all along the war. Despite the signature of the Hague Convention in 1899 and 1907, France, Germany and many other countries did not stop their research and did not give up on using these weapons during the First World War. Thus the conception of an efficient WW1 gas mask was extremely important.
WW1 chemical weapons
From the beginning of the First World War, chemical weapons were used: in August 1914, the French army used new grenades filled with tear gas (actually created for the Parisian police). For its part, Germany used its chemical industry to develop weapons with chlorine.
The escalation of the chemical war is launched in 1915 with the use on East front of gas shells on January 31th. This German attack failed because of the very cold temperature on the Polish front which stifled gas spreading and effects. Yet, on April 22nd 1915 in Flanders and particularly in the Ypres area, Germany launched the first large scale gas attack. Over 150 tons of pressured chlorine were released and drifted to Allied trenches. The gas cloud intoxicated about 15,000 soldiers and this chemical attack caused more than 1,000 deaths. Following this date, research and usage of chemical weapons increased from both sides of the front line. And providing a WW1 gas mask to every soldier became a priority.
In May 1915, assaults using phosgene, chlorine and carbon monoxide mixtures caused more than 600 deaths on the Russian front. German chemists pursued their researches and conceived a new bromine based substance. In September 1915, France launched their first massive gas assault using shells filled with carbon disulfide (highly toxic at high concentration, this product rapidly lost its effectiveness once dispersed in the air). In 1916 French shells filled with phosgene provoked heavy losses in German trenches. Starting in July 1917, the mustard gas used by the Germans – and then re-synthesized by the French army – caused many casualties on both sides of the front lines until the end of the war.
All along the First World War, hydrogen cyanide, arsine, bromine, chlorine, phosgene and other chemical elements composed increasingly deadly chemical weapons. It is estimated that more than 130,000 tons of chemical weapons were used during WW1. This kind of weapons caused more than 90,000 deaths during the conflict.
WW1 chemical weapons effects
From 1914, different chemical weapons used – such as tear gas – released harmful substances that would cause irritations (particularly eye pain), temporary disability, internal and external lesions and could also lead to death. The various devices that soldiers could use as a WW1 gas mask were not always efficient enough to protect the soldiers.
During the whole WW1 period, as chemical weapons were being developed, soldiers felt pain, cough up blood, were asphyxiated, suffered from chemical burns, became blind and died from these assaults. Among the most commonly known (and used) gases during WW1, the mustard gas - also known as Yperite – was particularly devastating. Indeed, the chemical compound was used by both sides and caused huge physical pains (burns, asphyxia, blindness, skin reactions, breathing system infections and death). Using gas as a chemical weapon was designed to disable the enemy, provoke withdrawal, as well as demoralize and weaken the soldiers by inflicting psychological pains.
The poisonous gas used during the First World War can now be purified with a gas mask to protect people from their effects, but this was not always the case.
The WW1 gas mask
Soldiers wearing makeshift breathing protection equipment
At the beginning of WW1, soldiers were poorly protected against gas assaults. Indeed, the modern gas mask was not developed and soldiers then tinkered makeshift respiratory protective systems. In 1914, only German soldiers were equipped with respiratory protections (simple gags actually).
In order to get protected against chemical weapons and particularly chlorine, a Canadian medical officer recommended troops to place on their mouth and nose a thick fabric soaked up with water, baking soda and urine. Ammonia contained in urine reacted with chlorine to avoid chlorine clouds effects.
Following the first great chemical assault in Ypres in 1915, France and its allies launched a serious run on respiratory protection equipment for troopers. The WW1 gas mask development and production would have to be done fast. Respiratory protective systems with compresses were quickly developed. The Allies first created gags by copying the Germans’ units found on the front. They were composed of a fabric envelope filled with cotton wool soaked with hyposulfite solution. Howerver, this envelop that was placed on the face with four straps was not enough to protect the entire breathing system as these masks were not airtight. Despite this, respiratory protective systems with compresses quickly developed. On the Allies side, more and more efficient solutions appear like the P2 stamps and S2 bags, then the T and TN stamps.
French military forces continued to make progress in developing protective equipment adding goggles to the gas defense equipment array in order to protect eyes and a part of the face. Yet, it is only in 1916 that these goggles became airtight, adjustable and really efficient against gases. On their side, the English forces developed hoods that seem to be more efficient. They were then used by French soldiers in addition to gags and goggles.
For each new substance, neutralizing and protective solutions for eyes and breathing tracts must evolve. They of course must be efficient against new gases but also keep their efficiency against previous substances that are still being used. It is a technical war that is being undertaken between chemists and engineers of both sides.
First WW1 gas masks
In the fall of 1915, German troops were equipped with a kind of modern gas mask. The Gummimaske was the first full face mask made of rubber fabric and featuring an interchangeable chemical air purifying system: the cartridge filter. These first cartridges were composed of vegetable coal, hyposulfite and soda ash. Particularly well thought, this mask was impermeable to tear gas and mustard gas and offered an efficient protection against high concentrations of phosgene. However, the purifying filter was inefficient against phosgene upon its introduction.
On the Allies side, the first WW1 gas mask appeared and was distributed to the front on December 6th 1916. This was a full face mask that covered the whole face and used a compresses system as a filter. This mask provided a good field of view thanks to a rectangular plastic visor. This gas mask was placed on the face with 2 elastic straps. All along its development, this mask evolved with eyecups and could protect soldiers for 5 hours.
In August 1916, a new gas mask version inspired by the German WW1 gas mask units was engineered, and produced in January 1917. Though, its usage only started in January 1918. This new mask called ARS mask (special respiratory device) or MCG (chemical warfare mask) was at that time the best protective unit against gases the Allied soldiers had to face. Breathing is made safe through air purifying cartridges for an efficient protection. The ARS well covered the face thanks to adjustable elastic straps and offers a good protection to eyes and breathing system. As it evolved, this mask used several filter types including filtering cartridges filled with agglomerated coal and glycerin water. With ARS gas masks, the old M2 unit was progressively relegated to an emergency function. Same principle and functions than escape masks - eebds and self rescuers - used nowadays in emergency situations.
These first WW1 gas masks produced by thousands of units would then be developed and enhanced until the Armistice on November 11th 1918. They would then still be produced after the war for new civil applications. Air purifying and atmosphere providing respiratory protective technologies developed during the First World War are the early stages of tools and equipment that we are now using regularly. The modern gas mask, the filter cartridges, the escape breathing devices and self-rescuers are used every day worldwide to protect millions of firefighters, workers and operators in many industries through thousands of applications.