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German Gas Mask

Curated Submission
DIMENSIONS in centimetres
19.6 x 12.4
Materials & techniques
Leather, steel, glass, rubber
Niagara Historical Society and Museum 69.1119
During the First World War traditional military tactics were challenged by new technology. Commanders ordered soldiers to dig trenches to hold ground and charge the enemy head-on in order to advance. Facing the newly developed machine guns, fighter planes, and tanks, soldiers were at a terrible disadvantage, and an unprecedented number of casualties resulted on both sides. In the spring of 1915, at the Second Battle of Ypres, Allied soldiers were introduced to yet another technological development: chlorine gas.
On April 22, 1915, German troops released chlorine gas on the French 45th Algerian Division, positioned to the left of the Canadian line at Ypres. While most of the gas missed the Canadians, the French retreat created a large gap in the defensive line that had to be filled by the outnumbered Canadians. Fighting to hold the position, the Canadians faced a direct attack two days later. Although they held the position until reinforcements arrived, the battle cost the lives of 6,000 Canadians in their first major engagement of the war. The first gas masks were produced at this time to protect soldiers against chemical warfare.
Featured here is a German mask from 1917. It has an all-leather face piece, glass lenses, and rubber and cloth straps that run along the back to ensure a secure fit. The chemical filter is directly attached, differentiating it from the Allied “small box respirator” style of mask whose filter was carried in a satchel, worn on the back and away from the face. The German design made the mask less cumbersome, but it was known to reduce the soldier’s ability to fire his weapon accurately. Respirators on the mask were also known to wear out faster than their Allied counterparts, and the parts made of leather, used here as a substitute for metal because of shortages, often failed under high concentrations of gas.
Although details are unknown, it is likely that this mask made its way to Canada as part of a collection of war souvenirs. Trophies of the conflict were in great demand, with soldiers searching for weapons, clothing, and equipment to bring back as mementos of their service overseas. Nearly 100 years later, souvenirs such as this one still serve as solemn reminders of the sacrifices that were made and of the challenges that Canadian soldiers faced during the conflict. 
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