11 September 2015
Scrutiny of objects collected at RAMM during the First World War period has revealed a grim reminder of one the horrors of the First World War: the gas attacks which caused over a million casualties.
In 1919 the museum was given a collection of German military equipment gathered by the British War Trophies Commission after the Armistice. Among the items is a gas mask worn by a German soldier in the trenches. The mask covered the soldier’s eyes and mouth to limit injury by chemical gas, but the rest of the head remained uncovered. The metal filter cartridge contained charcoal and an anti-gas chemical to stop the soldier inhaling lethal gases. This filter was made by AGFA who are more commonly known for making cameras and photographic equipment. During the war they manufactured metal goods including gas mask cartridges such as this one.
Over the years the mask had become misshapen as the rubber, textile and metal it is made from began to disintegrate. Careful cleaning and reshaping by conservation student Hana Bristow revealed several ink stamps including a number ‘3’, indicating the size of the mask, and marks denoting quality testing. The manufacture date ‘15/9/15’ shows it was made one hundred years ago. That year was the first the German army used lethal gases as a weapon in violation of the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare. In retaliation the first recorded gas attack by the British forces was on 25 September 1915, ten days after this mask was made.
Another item donated with this collection of ‘war relics’ is a storage tin which soldiers wore on a straps across their bodies so their masks were ready to use at all times. Although it is not thought to be directly related to the mask it is similar to one that would have been carried by the owner of the mask. On its lid is painted the name of the German soldier it belonged to, thought to read ‘Zang 5./18.’. Nothing is currently known about this soldier or his service during the war.
The gas mask is available to view on RAMM’s online collections database and will be displayed in the museum in 2018.