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Extraordinary Iconic Significance of the Gas Mask

My special interest object is a 'general civil respirator' issued to the British people in the Second World War. These mass-produced objects have come to symbolize life in the UK, even though it has never been used in action: the much-feared poison gas bomb attacks never materialised. There are gas masks for adults, children, babies, horses … and even dogs. You can even find military grade gas masks online 

First development

Gas masks first became standard military equipment after the Germans pioneered chemical warfare on the Western Front of the First World War at the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. The first gas masks for use in warfare were developed during the First World War when the German military pioneered the use of chlorine as a weapon – the original WMD.

The first gas masks were simple filters of damp cotton and were soon superseded by cloth bags soaked in chemicals. By the end of that conflict, the pattern for modern gas masks had been established, with a face mask, eye-pieces, a chemical filter, and a container.

The German war artist Otto Dix captured the horrors and ironies of the gas mask, which seemed to transform men into monsters on the Western Front.


In 1934, the British government asked its scientists at the Porton Down laboratory to design a civilian respirator which could be mass-produced at a unit cost of two shillings. The result was the General Civilian Respirator, familiar to the Second World War generation and to later generations from films, photographs, and stories of the period.