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Gas Masks in World War II - When You Didn't Have a Choice

Nell is an author and writer. She collects Masks and is fascinated by their history in culture and war.

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School kids and Gas Masks

There has been a lot of discussion about whether to wear a mask or not because of Covid-19.

Most people are happy to go along with it, but there are a few people who are arguing that they won't wear them for several reasons.

Some legitimately claim they have an illness which makes them unable to breathe properly while wearing them. Others are, let's be honest, just being awkward and rebelling against authority!

Putting it in perspective then, 80 years ago in WW2 we in Britain didn't have a choice. There was a real threat that Germany would explode a terrifying chemical bomb on all the major ports and cities in the UK.

And in WW1 it was a reality. During the horrific battles of the Somme in France, many boys died through gas attacks. My Grandfather was gassed in the first world war and suffered for many years, finally dying in WW2 from the effects of the poison in his stomach caused by mustard gas.

Over here in Britain as well as Allied Europe children under five were taught at school how to put gas masks on.

Whether you were at work, school, or shopping you had to carry them with you at all times and wear them for at least 20 minutes every single day to get used to them. As you can see from the video below.

The Mickey Mouse Gas Mask For Children.


The Mickey Mouse Gas Mask For Children

The Mickey Mouse gas mask was designed by Walt Disney in the 1940s especially for British children to try to take away the fear of wearing them.

As you can see it was very restricting around the face. Breathing was hard too, with many children stating that it made them feel sick and faint.

They had to wear it for a few minutes each day to get used to it.

Gas Mask for a Baby

No, this isn't a diving helmet. It is in fact a gas mask for a baby. This particular mask can be worn by children up to two years of age.

The see-through mask was placed over the child's head. They placed the canvas part around the body and tied it underneath the baby's bottom. The canvas had a rubber coating that would have caused the baby to overheat, but it had to be tight to stop the gas from seeping into and under the canvas.

The asbestos filter was on the side of the mask. Also on the side of the mask was a rubber tube that looked like a concertina. There was a handle attached to it. This was to pump air into the mask so that the child wouldn't suffocate. The mother would sit with the child and constantly pump the air into the mask.

Baby Gas Mask

Gas mask for baby

Gas mask for baby

Babies Gas Mask

Gas Masks and Asbestos

Gas masks were a mandatory accessory used by the population during the Second World War.

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They would carry the masks around with them, rather like an extra handbag.

To use the mask they had to hold their breath before placing the mask over their face and head, just in case they breathed in gas.

The masks were very hot and extremely smelly. Breathing in the air sucked out the gas, and when you breathed out, the whole mask moved away from your face.

The fact that the filter was made from asbestos would surely make people shudder today. But of course, back then it was there to save lives. If they only wore it the one time it would probably have been okay, but more than that would be potentially very dangerous to their health.

Telephone Operators


WW1 Hypo Helmet

The Hypo Helmet, also known as the British Smoke Hood was an early world war1 gas mask.

Unlike the second world war, the first world war was virtually hand to hand combat. Which entailed attacking each other across a one-mile stretch from trench to trench in France.

The first poison gas the Germans dropped was at the second battle of Ypres 1915. The British gave out cotton wool wrapped only in muslin to the troops, quickly followed by a Black Veil Respirator. This was a piece of cotton cloth soaked in an absorbent solution wrapped around the mouth, with goggles to protect the eyes.

This was soon followed by the Hypo Helmet. The hood itself was soaked in chlorine absorbent material with glycerine and sodium thiosulphate. There wasn't an air inlet to allow airflow. The soldier had to suck air in and dispel it through the cloth.

British Hypo Helmet WW1


Horse Gas Mask

A more sophisticated horse gas mask.

A more sophisticated horse gas mask.

A Gas Mask for a Horse

A rather strange contraption was invented in WW1 in the shape of a gas mask for horses.

This may not be as bizarre as it sounds. In world war1 I much of the battle was fought on the muddy grounds of France.

With deep trenches built for protection against and access, to the enemy, they needed horses to pull the carts across the soaking wet fields to bring supplies of food, guns, ammunition, and medical supplies.

In order for the horses to survive, they protected them as much as they could. The hospital carts that would transport the wounded back to the hospital relied on the horses so it was important to keep them safe.

The material for the hood was similar to the soldiers' Hypo Helmet. Coated in various chemicals to protect them from the chemical attacks. The horses weren't as susceptible to the gas as humans, so it didn't need a filter to help it breathe.

History War and Masks

Throughout history humans have worn masks to protect, terrify, or just intimidate the enemy.

Sometimes the war was a conflict between countries and at other times an invisible but deadly evil that needed to be wiped out. Such as the coronavirus.

But before that, we had Spanish Flu in 1918, The Black Death in 1349 and 1665.

But whichever way masks were worn back then, they have played their part in protecting the population.

So, my question is, are you going to wear that mask?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Nell Rose


Nell Rose (author) from England on August 17, 2020:

I agree with you on that bit Lawrence! lol! my first mask just kept slipping down my nose!

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on August 15, 2020:


I was in a bus, with (at the time) ten others, but normally carry up to seventy, thankfully during lockdown (we are back at level two, meaning one meter spacings) we carry thirty.

As for fitting the mask, it doesn't work that well, I tried it numerous times!!!

The guidlines were clearly thought up by someone who has never done the job!

Nell Rose (author) from England on August 15, 2020:

Hi Lawrence, yes it must be a right pain. But you don't need to wear a mask if you are on your own in the car, luckily. They say to put the mask on first, then add your glasses so that it fits the mask to your face.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on August 14, 2020:


A very good article, but i do have an issue with some of the things here.

In the Army weusedour respirators, and while awkward we could even drive wearing them. I recently tried that with a surgical mask and my specs (I have to wear them ford driving) steamed up and I almost hit a parked car!

When I got back to our operations room, I asked a few other drivers about itand ALL those who wore specs had the same results!!

Guess what, specs and masks don't mix when driving!

So, spare a thought at the next driver (especially those driving big vehicles) you see not wearing a mask, they're not flouting the rules, they're being considerate of other people's safety on the roads.

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 19, 2020:

Thanks Nithya, I know, how awful! Thank goodness we only have to use cloth ones now. Thank you for reading.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on July 19, 2020:

An interesting and informative article. Today the masks that we wear is a breeze compared to what they wore during the World War I and World War II, we have no reason to complain. I shudder to even think about the gas masks made with asbestos in them.

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 18, 2020:

Thanks Shauna, yes who would have guessed it? thanks as always.

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 18, 2020:

I know Peggy. I don't understand it either. Yes Gas masks had to be worn 20 minutes each day, every single day! not good, but it was necessary.

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 18, 2020:

Thanks Linda, I have someone who lives with me who is very high risk, so I have been wearing a mask since March. take care, and thank you

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 18, 2020:

I knew that some soldiers wore gas masks if needed, but never knew that the population in general also had to have them available at all times during WWII in the UK. Thanks for the education about warfare during that time and how it affected the general populace.

As to wearing masks to ward off the pandemic, it is a necessary precaution, and we do it, whether or not it is mandatory. It angers me to think that there are people so selfish that they would risk the health of others because it doesn't feel comfortable to wear a mask. We are in a hot zone in Texas. The army is sending in extra doctors and nurses to help man our hospitals because of so many COVID-19 patients.

Linda Rogers from Minnesota on July 18, 2020:

Hi Nell, hopefully you are doing well doing these crazy times of coronavirus. I found this article so intriguing and didn't know about those crazy gas masks people had to wear. The masks today are not a bother in comparison. Sis and I are high risk, so we choose to listen to the science so we don't have to endure the agony of this virus. To me, this is not politics but common sense. Please stay well my hub friend.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on July 17, 2020:

In my county and several others, we've been mandated to wear masks when out in public. At work we now have to wear them whenever we leave our offices and venture out into the hallways, kitchen, bathrooms, or other people's offices. Anyone entering our office building must be wearing a mask or they can't come inside.

It gotten to where I've bought several masks that speak to who I am and I'll be buying more. Who'd a thought that today's society would actually accessorize their wardrobes with fashionable masks? If they must be worn, at least they can be attractive, right?

So glad I didn't live in WWI or WWII. Those masks are hideous! My claustrophobia would get the best of me in one of those contraptions.

Nice job on this article, Nell. I learned a bunch of things I didn't know.

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 16, 2020:

Thanks Devika, always great to see you.

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 16, 2020:

Same here Dora. I wear a bandana tube around my neck, just pull it up, and back down when outside. Thanks as always.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on July 16, 2020:

It is important to wear a mask it is a precaution. Your ideas are reminders here are tremendous.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on July 16, 2020:

Nell,you surely make a point for the mask. To think if it as compulsory gives a new perspective. I'm thinking that it may benefit us to get used to it; since it could possibly become the rule and not the exception. Still, I'm hoping that it doesn't. I always have my mask with me, but look for every opportunity to take it off.

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 16, 2020:

Thank you Chitrangada, yes many people don't realize just what Britain had to go through in the wars. Always good to see you.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on July 16, 2020:

A well written and important article, especially when some people refuse to wear masks, or even don’t realise the dangers of the pandemic.

Appreciate your efforts and research in sharing this article. Hadn’t seen these pictures, anywhere earlier. Should be an eye opener for many people.

Thanks for sharing.

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 15, 2020:

Hi Linda, thanks so much for reading. Yes can you imagine wearing those gas masks?

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 15, 2020:

Goodness knows Ruby. I just wish people would grow up. And thanks for reading.

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 15, 2020:

Same here Bill. Maybe one day they will grow a backbone. Thanks as always.

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 15, 2020:

Thanks Lorna, this was written to make a perspective thing really. I don't mind masks, I have been wearing them since March.

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 15, 2020:

Thanks Eric, yes, nearly all of the UK had to wear these. And at night most slept in the underground railway stations to keep safe too.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on July 15, 2020:

This is a very interesting and informative article, Nell. Most of your information was new to me. I'm glad I've learned about it.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on July 15, 2020:

The answer is a resounding YES. I wear a mask when I go anywhere. This was a great history lesson. When are we going to stop the hate and wars?

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 15, 2020:

I am so friggin' tired of Americans complaining about wearing cloth masks, about their freedoms being stripped away. What about my rights and my freedom, having to live my life surrounded by selfish, stupid people? lol

Lorna Lamon on July 15, 2020:

I can remember my Gran talking about gas masks and how terrified she was of them as a child. I really don't understand what all the fuss is about. I have to wear a mask in my workplace and you do get used to it. In most Asian countries masks are worn as a matter of course, due to pollution.

Just imagine having to wear a gas mask during the war. This is a different type of war and if we are going to win, we need to do whatever it takes.

This was such an interesting and informative article Nell, which made we realise just how much we have taken for granted.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on July 15, 2020:

Wow. I heard but never learned of this. Horrific.

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 15, 2020:

Thanks Pamela, and I never knew about the horse, lol! thanks as always.

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 15, 2020:

Thanks Zulma, I have been wearing masks since March. I am used to them now. I haven't worn the behind the ears ones, just bandanas pulled up. But yes back then, the gas masks were scary but necessary. Thanks as always.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 15, 2020:

I knew people wore masks in WW1, but I nevr knew there were so many types. The Mickey Mouse gas mask surprised me. This is a very interesting article, Nell.

Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon from United Kingdom on July 15, 2020:

Hi, Nell.

I was aware of the masks, of course. My parents-in-law were children during the war and they told me about them. How they had to carry them around constantly and how very unpleasant they were.

The WWI masks were a revelation. I didn't know they had masks for the horses.

As for actually wearing the mask now? Well, that decision has been taken out of my hands. My husband tells me that now it's mandatory when going into shops. I don't like it, but you do what you gotta do to keep moving forward.

Have a good day, Nell.

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 14, 2020:

Thanks Learn Things Web. Yes it was really hard back then, I remember my mother telling me all about the gas masks. Strange times.

LT Wright from California on July 14, 2020:

This is fascinating. I never heard about it before, but, yes if it's a choice between dying a horrible death or wearing a mask, I'd go with the mask.

Nell Rose (author) from England on July 14, 2020:

Hi Cheryl, thank you so much for reading. I am glad you liked it.

Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on July 14, 2020:

Thank you for this most informative article. I had no idea.

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