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Total WarAn Emotional History$

Lucy Noakes, Claire Langhamer, and Claudia Siebrecht

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266663

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: September 2020

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266663.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM BRITISH ACADEMY SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.britishacademy.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright British Academy, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in BASO for personal use.date: 29 July 2021

‘Macabre and Hilarious’: The Emotional Life of the Civilian Gas Mask in France during and after the First World War

‘Macabre and Hilarious’: The Emotional Life of the Civilian Gas Mask in France during and after the First World War

(p.40) 3 ‘Macabre and Hilarious’: The Emotional Life of the Civilian Gas Mask in France during and after the First World War
Total War

Susan R. Grayzel

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

The anticipation and fear of what chemical weapons might do to a civilian population haunted the interwar imaginary in the aftermath of the introduction and widespread use of poison gas on the battlefields of the First World War. In no place, perhaps, was this more apparent than France, one of the few nations whose civilian and combatant populations bore direct witness to this innovative weaponry. One object—the gas mask—emerged to mitigate the physical effects of gas warfare. It would come to play a crucial role in the calculated management of the destabilising emotions of anxiety and fear that accompanied the deployment of chemical arms, but its emotional life extended beyond its intended aims. This chapter combines the material and emotional history of total war by using a single object to uncover more fully the dislocation and devastation wrought by modern, industrial war. It does so by analysing key aspects of the life of the civilian gas mask from its first appearance in France during the First World War to its symbolic power in interwar civil defence and war resistance.

Keywords:   chemical weapons, civil defence, civilian, fear, France, First World War, gas mask, material history, poison gas, war resistance


IN 1932, THE FRENCH PACIFIST Victor Méric published a substantive treatise to shock his readers into acknowledging the nature of the war that awaited them. He did so by envisioning the results of chemical warfare on an ordinary civilian locale. Poison gas descends into this setting and havoc ensues, until finally: ‘A woman, mad with terror, takes her baby and breaks his skull into pieces against a wall. The next day, cadavers in all the streets, the massacre of innocents.’1 Méric articulated the ultimate nightmare scenario for his readers—a massive chemical attack on defenceless civilians—and his solution, like that of many contemporaries, was disarmament and the rejection of war and all preparations for war. The anticipation and fear of what chemical weapons might do to a civilian population haunted the interwar imaginary in the aftermath of the introduction and widespread use of poison gas on the battlefields of the First World War. In no place, perhaps, was this more apparent than France, one of the few nations whose civilian and combatant populations both bore direct witness to this innovative and terrorising weaponry.

After the First World War, the state took steps to protect its population from a future poison gas attack. The French government passed legislation in 1922 recognising that the war to come would likely be waged against civilians in new ways, and it offered ‘défense passive’ (passive or civil defence) as a viable response. One critical element of this new form of war preparation was the creation of a form of individual anti-gas protection. The resulting gas mask thus became the (p.41) manifestation of anticipation and fear, but its emotional life extended beyond its intended aims.

This chapter advances the material and emotional history of total war by using a single object to uncover more fully the dislocation and devastation wrought by modern, industrial war making. It does so by analysing key aspects of the life of the civilian gas mask from its first appearance in France during the First World War to its symbolic power in interwar war planning and war resistance. The gas mask was a direct response to the poison gas that killed and maimed thousands of soldiers, leaving survivors with scarred lungs and diminished lives. The devices created to mitigate the physical effects of gas warfare also played a role in the calculated management of the destabilising emotions of anxiety and fear that accompanied the deployment of chemical arms. Crucially, the threat of this new form of war-making extended beyond the borders of the so-called battle zone into civilian spaces and onto civilian bodies.

Both civilians and the states trying to manage them displayed a wide variety of emotional responses to these rapidly changing circumstances. From the start, reactions in France to the civilian gas mask mocked its appearance, making it an object of ridicule. At the same time, it provoked outrage, apprehension, and sorrow. In the war’s aftermath, all of these attributes persisted. Post-war representations of the gas mask used it in deliberately terrifying and/or poignant ways to spur resistance to the entire regime of défense passive. Official instruction manuals continued to use humour to normalise the arrival of this object as part of everyday life. Ever since its creation, the gas mask has personified industrialised, total warfare where no one could remain untouched. As civilians became part of the calculations about, and accommodated themselves to the new stakes of war, physically and emotionally, this material object became the emblem of what it meant to face modern, total war.

War, Objects, and Emotions

The growth in studies of material culture provides ways to rethink the history of modern war. Scholarship since the 1980s has sought to give ‘things’ a place in our understanding of culture beyond the aesthetic and collectible by treating objects not solely as cultural artefacts but also as items that made meaning as they multiplied around us.2 Cultural anthropologists such as Arjun Appadurai have demonstrated that objects have a social life. For Appadurai, although we may be ‘conditioned by the view that things have no meanings apart from those that human transactions, attributions, and motivations endow them with … this formal (p.42) truth does not illuminate the concrete, historical circulation of things. For that we have to follow the things themselves, for their meanings are inscribed in their forms, their uses, their trajectories.’3 More recent developments in the field have asserted that, as Daniel Miller puts it, in studying material culture we are interrogating ‘how things make people’ as much as people make things.4 While we inherit things that shape us, over time societies acquire and normalise new things, in a dialectic that Miller illuminates, although he does not consider that things also emerge suddenly in response to cataclysms and new modes of violence.5 The potential of these approaches for the study of military and militarised objects as devices that shed light on broader aspects of total war continues to be relatively underdeveloped.6 Military and militarised devices embody the very violent power that lies at the heart of all war, and the escalation of industrialised warfare in 1914–18 revealed and prompted an array of new things that encapsulated the virulence of modern war.

In order to consider the evolution of such objects overtly in the light of their relationship to organised violence, it may be useful to turn to insights such as that of Langdon Winner, who argued for the ‘political life’ of objects.7 The stuff of war certainly has a political life. The stories of the global networks that circulated gunpowder and guns, for example, illustrate the profound political consequences of embracing new military objects.8 The spread not only of military technology itself but also of ideas and plans for deploying such technology in new ways has fuelled and continues to define arms races, the essence of contests over global domination. Military devices further take on cultural traits and national histories as each state develops its own version of innovations, as can be seen in the history of aerial warfare, tanks, bombs, guns, or bullets. Moreover, the usefulness of new weapons is not always self-evident, and military history contains examples of resistance to new modes of war-making as they shatter prior ideals of how war (p.43) should be conducted.9 Accounts of war-making technology, such as the influential study of the machine gun by John Ellis, have highlighted their utility for understanding broader social phenomena. As Ellis demonstrates, it required a shift in mindset rather than simply in technology to accept and put the machine gun to use to catastrophic effect during the First World War.10

We might apply Ellis’s insights about the machine gun to the objects of war more generally, especially if we analyse them in view of work by Ian Hodder on the entangled relationship between humans and their things.11 The interdependence of humankind and objects, as Hodder elaborates, means that our understanding of the stability of the world relies on our mostly invisible relationship with things: ‘two components of dependence, positive and negative, produce and constrain human action and lead humans into entanglements from which it becomes difficult to become detached’.12 Things fall apart, and thus require us to maintain them, and, as a general rule, we are not consciously aware of the complex material webs that surround us until this happens.

Hodder also hints at the inherent dynamics of temporality and power in how humans and things become entangled. Most provocatively for the discussion of war materiel, he asserts that ‘words and ideas and emotions inform the abstractions and resonance that contribute to entanglement. But on their own … [they] do not have an enduring existence. … It is only when translated into some durable form that they do come to be central parts of entanglements.’13 In this way, we cannot understand military devices without seeing their entanglement with war-making and life-taking. Fundamentally, wartime objects revolve around activities—most notably killing other humans—that are taboo in ordinary circumstances. The emotions and ideas provoked by and entangled in the objects that enable state-sanctioned violence are essential to understand how things make war feasible. Such objects can themselves manifest emotions, but we can only read them historically through the human expressions of feeling that these objects provoke.14

Yet even as military technology developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to make possible the catastrophic injuries experienced during the First World War, so too did ideas that sought to limit their devastating impact. Some of these emerged on the macro-level of international law, which sought in The Hague Conventions to limit the use of military technology and tactics, such (p.44) as efforts to prohibit certain types of bullets or limit the damage that could be inflicted on civilian populations.15 Some attempts to constrain the use of military technology such as chemical munitions proved relatively futile during the First World War. However, the outrage that accompanied reports on the widespread damage sustained by regions, including Northern France, during the German invasion and occupation of this war reflected popular belief that the German army violated norms for waging war and for the treatment of civilians.16 The long emotional afterlife of shock and condemnation was also carried by things—from contemporary postcards depicting atrocities to post-war monuments to the victims.

The development and deployment of gas masks marks a significant moment in the object history of war. Like guns, bombs, and bullets, the gas mask helps make war feasible. Yet, unlike the technology that led to chemical gas shells and the artillery that delivered them, the gas mask was designed to be life preserving rather than life taking. Its improvised arrival in 1915 in the face of deliberately poisoned air drew upon models created to sustain life under particular, non-violent circumstances such as working in a mine or responding to fire.17 As it evolved from its most primitive designs—a piece of cloth, moistened with some liquid, tied over the nose and mouth—into the more sophisticated helmet with separate filter and eye holes for visibility, the gas mask became emblematic of the emerging barbarism of modern industrialised warfare over the course of the First World War.

In addition to being a device that underwent multiple incarnations as a solely military object during that conflict, the gas mask took on a more poignant valence when placed on civilian bodies, especially those of children.18 While the civilian gas mask remains powerfully associated with the Second World War, its origins and invention lay in the previous generation. It was during this earlier conflict that the gas mask and its emotional registers entered into the history of modern war. This object was one of the few militarised things shared by combatants and non-combatants, and as such it embodied a complex emotional life that enables us better to understand total war.

(p.45) Some general insights from the developing history of emotions prove useful in thinking about the emotional life of objects of war. These include relying on concepts in the field such as the recognition that the management of emotions is both individual and communal, and that ‘as societies change, so will emotions’.19 In addition to being able to trace the development of shifting emotional regimes over time, objects and their emotional resonances need to be considered in all their contexts, from local to national, social to political.20 All this seems critical for understanding circumstances such as war, in which maintaining constraints on emotions becomes linked with national survival.

As a widespread, devastating series of events with violence at their core, modern war produces new emotional states not only in those directly engaged in action but also in everyone caught up in its expanding maw. Fear would seem a cornerstone for this type of regime of feelings—the sentiment necessary to control in all engaged in fighting, but perhaps in the citizen-soldier above all.21 For the First World War in particular, studies have focused on how the new diagnosis of shell shock sought to describe and explain what happens when traumatic stress and modern weaponry meet the mass mobilisation of men who are not professional soldiers.22 Historians such as Jan Plamper have seen the very recognition of fear in combatants as coinciding with the rise of military psychology as a distinct field of expertise and practice.23

The issue of fear is an indispensable factor in modern war. Joanna Bourke captures the essence of this concept when she observes that ‘war domesticates terror’ and that ‘in the face of total war, no one felt safe. Ever.’24 Among soldiers, training and the provision of rest, food, and various forms of ‘comfort’ could mitigate fear. When it came to civilians, Bourke finds that survival techniques to address fear included turning to the irrational, such as seeking assurance from superstitions and astrology as well as religion.25

Yet, the provision of objects to manage fear or to convey a sense of safety, however elusive, has not been the focus of scholars of emotions and modern war. This seems a curious absence given that the experience of militarised life for both combatants and non-combatants under the conditions of total war included many (p.46) concrete things designed for their association with security and safety. These could take in the range of materials designed to comfort troops, from handmade socks and scarves to the trench newspapers that enabled them to interpret the war for themselves to the state-issued gas mask. What is striking about this final object is the shift between the First and Second World Wars from providing such items overwhelmingly to combatants to offering them extensively to non-combatants.

Soldiers have kits, the basic materials that they strap on their bodies and transport that enable them to wage war. During the First World War, the things they carried remained consistent across national borders, including those solely for military and death-dealing purposes, such as grenades, and those adapted from civilian life, such as canteens. Tucked away in rucksacks and pockets were relatively new objects, such as photographs of loved ones that alongside letters from home in an increasingly literate European society offered vital emotional support.26 By the end of 1915, alongside those in other mass armies, poilus in the French military (the contemporary term for the regular soldier akin to ‘Tommy’ for British troops) also transported another innovative item: the gas mask. Critically, and unlike the other military devices of this war, after 1915 the gas mask would come to play a central role in the complicated expression and management of wartime emotions for the entire population, both combatants and non-combatants. In order to understand this development, we must turn to its origins.

Chemical Weapons, Gas Masks, and the First World War

On 22 April 1915, warfare entered a new phase with the first widespread, lethal use of modern chemical munitions at the Second Battle of Ypres.27 This transformation in the nature of war forced participating states to safeguard their troops against a weapon that made the basic life-sustaining act of breathing something that killed. As historians of chemical warfare emphasise, ‘the armies that would clash on the Western Front marched to war without any sort of serious protective measures against poison gas’.28 States quickly responded with the creation and then distribution of goggles, cotton masks, and soon ‘anti-gas balaclavas (p.47) impregnated with sodium thiosulphate’—the chemical deemed most suitable to neutralise chlorine gas, which had been identified as the poison being used by Germany. The French and British further shared information about the weapons they faced and the protective devices that they were developing; but lacking a central institutional body to organise it, anti-gas protection remained rudimentary throughout 1915.29

The arrival of gas warfare led private industries to take advantage of the desire of non-combatants to ensure the safety of their friends and family members in the military who were facing these weapons. An enterprising pharmacist wrote to the daily paper L’Homme Libre in early June 1915 offering masks and tubes of anti-asphyxiating solution.30 Advertisements such as one appearing in Le Matin the following month offered a mask against asphyxiating gases for 3 francs.31 Images of soldiers in primitive anti-gas devices began to circulate, as in a photograph of a sentry wearing a gas mask hood that appeared in the 15 September 1915 issue of Le Flambeau.32 The 15 October issue of the same journal displayed a full-page ad from the Pharmacie Robert complete with a photograph of the device, a ‘masque-cagoule’[hooded mask] available for purchase for the benefit of ‘our soldiers’.33 This outpouring of civilian anxiety and entrepreneurial energy prompted an official warning in October about devices intended to protect soldiers against asphyxiating gases made without any official control: ‘In the interests of our soldiers … the ministry [of war] has decided that the sending of such devices by families will be rigorously prohibited.’34 Clearly, French civilians were quickly learning about the dangers of weaponised poison gas and the objects to combat them.

Oliver Lepick, the leading historian of the French experience of chemical weapons during the First World War, has investigated both how such soldiers faced this type of warfare and how it came to symbolise the deepest horrors of the conflict. Lepick suggests that chemical arms provoked an exceptional psychological impact under certain circumstances, an effect eventually mitigated by gas masks but not until after 1916. He also records that even with protection, combatants had to confront fears that a new gas might be introduced, against which existing gas masks would fail.35

(p.48) In his broad comparative study of chemical weapons and the war, I. F. Haber further explains that it took a combination of better equipment and better training to mount an effective defence against gas, and that each nation continued to work independently to create their own respirator.36 Variations among national designs persisted, with the French adopting what became known as the M2, a fabric mask with a waterproof cover and celluloid goggles that incorporated the earlier respirator’s main feature of multiple layers of muslin moistened with a variety of chemical solutions and put together to form a thick pad to absorb the poison.37 While anti-gas protection had limitations, it worked well enough that a fatalism about chemical arms eventually took hold among the French infantry exposed to them. Yet as Lepick further points out, French civilians near the zones of the armies also had to confront the threat and reality of poison gas. The civilian casualties from chemical weapons barely featured in the media of the time or later history, but it is hardly surprising that locales bordering the Western Front would be exposed to chemical agents blown from the main sites of battle.38 These included such places as the city of Reims, best known for the destruction of its cathedral during the war. Germans held the high ground near the city, subjecting it to bombardment throughout the war and to the dangers of poison gas. After April 1915, inhabitants were given gas masks and told to follow government instructions.39

One can glimpse some of the civilians’ emotional reactions to poison gas in the 1916 book Sous les bombes, offered as a ‘pale resumé of the sufferings of the city of Reims’. Written in the form of a journal, the text exposes the ways in which gas masks entered into everyday life.40 In a June 1915 entry, the ‘question of the day’ was the gas mask, ‘immediately nicknamed the muzzle’. The names given to things matter, even more so when the name itself remakes the object. In this case, the name functions on two levels, one solely descriptive, the other turning the object designed for military use into something associated with domesticated animals. This new name further serves to highlight the inherent tension in an object that associates humans with the most basic physical state of trying to breathe, and also obscures their most human features so that they resemble non-human animals.

In a city vulnerable to regular attacks, the masks evoked both calm and ridicule: ‘one finishes by laughing until tears at the description of the object: a pad of linen cloth made thicker with lint, length covering the bases of the nose and mouth, width according to the individual oval [of the face]’.41 Like other (p.49) primitive forms of response to gas attacks, this thing remade basic household, domestic materials into something designed for protection against modern war.42 The author continues that ‘it doesn’t matter, one sees and one hears bizarre things in our locale [chez nous]. But what is even more bizarre in this case, is that it does not appear even more so’.43 In other words, the bizarre appearance of the gas mask had lost its strangeness or potential for causing alarm in the wider context of the other catastrophic circumstances confronting this war-ravaged community.

A few months later, the text recounts a night-time aerial attack when inhabitants were told to prepare for poison gas. This then led to the appearance of: ‘real masks … strange things, macabre and hilarious, which spoke of a nightmare or a joke’. The author predicts that the impact of this sight will linger: ‘when we will have returned to normal life, without a doubt, we will have become accustomed to the effects of these somnambulists who dance the night along the gutters and tremble only in the morning when it is revealed to them that the danger has run past’.44 The attacks and the sight of the masks intermingle into something that calls forth the seemingly contradictory emotions of hilarity and terror. The gas masks are funny in a macabre way, and in this sense, the waking nightmares and laughter both seem to react to something genuinely shocking and new; hence the assertion that somehow the collective civilian population has become accustomed to this strange, new, gas-masked world.

Part of this process of managing the shock of poison gas can be found in the acts of the government as well as the reactions of civilian inhabitants. In January 1916, the military issued instructions to the non-combatant population near the zones of active operations as to what to do in case of poison gas attack, posted at all the ordinary places of everyday life: ‘Mairies [site of local government], post offices, tobacco shops and the doors of churches’.45 Sous les bombes offers its own civilian perspective on this development. The entry for 9 January records the first rumours of the distribution of gas masks, which prompts ‘everyone to swoon with laughter’ and then notes ‘it’s true, they really were distributed a day ago’. And they provoke discussion and agitation: those who obtained them ‘exhibit and explain them. It’s necessary not to run, to breathe as little as possible.’ The questions arise from the poor asthmatics: ‘and if one wishes to cough? And if there is no longer air?’ An emotion descends over the crowd, ‘the anguish that one can do nothing’.46

The gas mask thus became part of one’s toilette, paraded in the streets and most notably by schoolchildren, who carried them ‘very gravely at the waist … (p.50) a little grey-blue bag … above it the large round eyes of greenish glasses’. They were not allowed in school without them and had already learned the handling of them: ‘can one imagine this lesson of things [cette leçon de choses]?’. The lesson imparted by this thing for the civilian inhabitants—the old ones, the mothers—according to this text, was one of conflicting emotions, fear and rage and despair; prayers rose up and ‘grace will be imparted with the gas’.47

Evidence of the danger facing the inhabitants of locations such as Reims circulated throughout the nation through other things that contained reproduced images of the gas mask worn by civilians. In January 1916, the cover of the popular weekly L’Illustration reprinted photographs taken by the military that featured ‘Le Petit Ecolier de Reims’ [a little schoolchild of Reims] wearing a gas mask. Inside the pages of the issue, other young children appear wearing masks, both individually and then in a group portrait with their school teacher.48 The circulation of such images, showing children in dehumanising hoods with their eyes peering from the round holes, revealed the inability of the French government to keep the nation’s most vulnerable populations safe from the dangers posed by modern warfare, exacerbating fears of the new weapons of war. At the same time, they also incorporated children into the waging of war without limits. Other visible signs of emotions potentially felt by these children such as tears are literally masked by the anti-gas protection. In this sense, the gas mask could become emblematic of stoicism and resolve, but also the erasure of all emotions, including these.

The image of the schoolchild of Reims wearing a gas mask came to represent the emotional shock of gas warfare. The photograph inspired the cover illustration of a book with the same title published in 1918 that distilled other lessons of the war. Le Petit Ecolier de Reims’s bright red cover drawing of three children in gas masks was in keeping with others in this series of books put forward by the prominent publisher Larousse throughout the war and interwar period that interpreted the world for young children. As was the case with L’Illustration’s 1916 photograph, the lower halves of the faces on the cover are completely obscured by what appears to be a simple piece of fabric tied over the noses and mouths, while separate masks with embedded eyeholes cover the upper part of the face.49 Yet the hair and bodies are remarkably untouched, the anti-gas protection at once disorienting and normalised.

Within the short narrative of Le Petit Ecolier de Reims, the schoolchildren encounter gas masks suddenly when they arrive in class to find two large cases at the front of the room. The female protagonist Louisette hopes for bon-bons, but her older brother Jean, spotting the blue bags in the open cases, realises that these (p.51) are masks, like those for the soldiers in the trenches. The school’s director, Mme Fiquémont, ‘with care and great calmness’ explains that the masks are simply a precaution because of the school’s proximity to the trenches. Jean, ‘pale but resolute’, listens and feels his heart beat faster as Madame explains what the masks will do as she slowly puts one on. After tying fabric across her nose and mouth into ‘a strange mask that distorts all her features’, she places ‘a pair of huge, round glasses’ on top. The class then bursts into loud and unrestrained laughter, the little ones straining to get a better view of ‘this terrible head’. Remaining calm, having expected this ‘hilarity’, she then engages the children in doing as she has done, and they follow her example.50 ‘With the collective dignity of soldiers during manoeuvres,’ the older children learn how to fit themselves with ‘these terrible yet necessary disguises’.51

Some of the very youngest have a different response, reacting with ‘piercing cries’ to the appearance of ‘monsters’ in the class. Little Louisette weeps and hides her head, exclaiming ‘I am afraid of beasts!’ Gradually the laughter and the cries become so loud that nearby soldiers arrive, startled and saddened by the appearance of the masked children and the realisation that ‘even these little ones were not immune to the atrocities of war’.52 The text ends with Jean and Louisette returning home to the good news that they will be going to Paris, thus filling them with the hope of never having need of their masks.

This children’s story, like the photographs that preceded it, centres around the gas mask as the thing that provokes uncontrollable responses. Designed and delivered as something to keep the children safe, a precaution, this version of the primitive gas mask elicits both overt hilarity and fear among the children for whom it is intended. For the soldiers observing the juxtaposition of object and subject, gas mask and child, it calls forth another emotion—sorrow about the reach of total war. The emotional resonance of the gas mask shifts with the wearer, as was also apparent in Sous les bombes, and the positioning of the object onto the child becomes emblematic of the broader, devastating transformations of total war.

Even as the gas mask in both design and reach became normalised by the latter part of the war, it continued to elicit a range of responses. In a cartoon in the fashionable La Vie Parisienne in August 1917, it adorned a soldier as the new ‘mask of heroes’, and a month later in the same journal it featured in an anecdote about civilian life near the front lines.53 Here a short piece entitled ‘the latest fashion’ matter-of-factly explained that all the inhabitants in the communes near the front had received masks against gas, which they had to carry on them continually in case of alert. They transported their masks ‘in a little blue linen bag suspended across the shoulders with a cord’. The bag closed with two buttons, (p.52) but ‘do you know what was imprinted on the buttons? “Dernière mode de Paris” [latest Paris fashion].’ This raised a dilemma that the French government, which distributed the masks and bags, did not anticipate: what if the buttons fell into enemy hands? They might conceive a false idea of the dangers facing the capital (who were spared poison gas attacks), and so too might a poor Parisian poilu.54 In this small anecdote, not only the gas mask but also the materials used to carry it become part of the calculations of waging war. The label ‘latest fashion’ on the thing used to carry the gas mask is both ironic and true, as this object becomes part of popular consciousness and part of the everyday material world for these civilians as much as for the heroic combatants.

The air itself became weaponised in 1915. Unsurprisingly, such a profound shift had emotional consequences—including fear, sorrow, anxiety, stoicism, hilarity, despair, defiance, resignation—that became embedded in everyday life for both soldiers and civilians. At that time, the main material solution to deliberate attempts to make the atmosphere toxic was the gas mask. As a piece of technology, initially it was improvised from everyday, even household items, such as pieces of cloth, yet over time it became mass-produced in factories. At the end of 1918, its afterlife remained unclear, but so did the stakes of future war. With the cessation of hostilities, the potent images of gas-masked civilians led directly to questions that the state was now forced to address: was this inevitably what the next war would entail, and could anything be done to prevent or mitigate it?

Gas Masks in the Aftermath of the First World War

The arrival of the era of chemical weapons motivated two powerful, contradictory responses: preparation and prohibition. By the start of the 1920s, the French government had made a commitment to défense passive by enacting legislation to address the threat of the war to come. As structured in the 1920s, the logistics of anti-gas protection in peacetime fell to different levels of the French bureaucracy, but until 1935 the responsibility for funding civil defence measures fell upon municipalities. This meant in practice that planning for civil defence proceeded at the national level without actually developing the tools with which to implement it locally.55

(p.53) At the same time, voices both within and beyond France turned to pre-war models for how to prevent the future deployment of chemical munitions. Forbidding the use of asphyxiating gases, first discussed in international military law in 1868, became part of The Hague Conventions of 1907, where Article 23 forbade the use of ‘poison or poisoned weapons’ as well as ‘arms, projectiles, or material calculated to cause unnecessary suffering’.56 Events from 1915 onward demonstrated the futility of this approach, and so in 1925 the only major piece of international law that addressed the First World War’s new weapons came into being with the Geneva Anti-Gas Protocol, which France became the first nation to ratify in 1926.57

The civilian gas mask continued to be a cornerstone of French war planning by the fifteenth anniversary of the arrival of chemical arms at Second Ypres. A definitive guide published in 1930, Le Danger Aérien et L’Avenir du pays [The Aerial Danger and the Future of the Country] by Colonel Vauthier, cautioned against focusing too much planning on aero-chemical warfare, in particular because the greatest danger posed by such forms of war making was panic: ‘At the first bad news, the population would tend to exaggerate the peril and believe that all is lost … it is necessary to regard the danger with calm.’ Ultimately, the ready availability of gas masks ensured that this danger could be faced, tranquillity established, and the impending despair conquered.58

French officials asserted that the state had matters in hand in the 1931 ‘Instruction Pratique sur La Défense Passive contre les Attaques Aériennes’ issued to prefects and mayors, elaborating plans for défense passive throughout the nation. A special section on gas masks in this manual assured its readers that ‘The ministry of war … would furnish all devices for individual protection against gas.’ While describing the types of masks currently available in some detail, it also reported that further tests to produce even better masks were ongoing.59 In the event of a conflict, civilians would be divided into categories of active and passive, with a priority for gas masks going to active personnel; others would accept a different type of mask. While it remained unclear how the state would provide everyone with a respirator, the mask became the focal point of state efforts (p.54) to manage popular fears of chemical arms and thus to mitigate their potential disruption of everyday life.

The best hope of those who preferred curtailing militaries and weapons to promoting civil defence was the long-anticipated 1932 international disarmament conference in Geneva. Strikingly, in advance of the conference, several French-based groups including the Comité d’Action pour le Désarmement Universel [Action Committee for Universal Disarmament] and the French branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the Ligue Internationale des Femmes pour la Paix et la Liberté produced literature that utilised an identical drawing of a mother and child in gas masks as part of their advocacy. One placed this below the heading ‘Will you accept this?’ This terrifying and perverse image of mother and child in gas masks—one only possible in modern warfare—clearly intended to mobilise opposition not only to this type of warfare, but also to the state efforts to protect its inhabitants from such trauma. Below this image was an appeal to sign the statement: ‘I refuse to give my government to right to prepare itself and to prepare me for a war of poison, that is to say of universal assassination.’ The organisations further asked citizens to refuse to participate in any drills that might prepare them for a gas war, since this could have only one result: the ‘reciprocal extermination of peoples’.60

This was the context in which French anti-militarist Victor Méric expounded upon chemical war’s fearsome dangers.61 Méric too uses the unnatural spectacle of an infant and mother under the heinous conditions of chemical warfare to illustrate the dangers of not working against the next war, and of the fallacy of offering measures with false promises of security. As Méric explains in La guerre qui revient, the next war would become a kind of ‘general suicide of civilised peoples’, killing the nation.62 His vivid depiction of what such a future war would entail engages in a fantasy of what the mere cry of ‘gas’ will yield: ‘[W]omen take their little ones and squeeze them to their chests. Where are the shelters and the masks? In a street stained with blood and gutted by fire, vague forms that run, crawling, slipping, collapsing. … At a window, a woman leaping over a balcony, jumping into the emptiness.’63

The scene concludes with the alarming image that began this chapter: a mother, made insane by terror, smashing the skull of her infant. Tellingly, this scene of horror evolves because any form of protection seems to be absent; the first cry is for protection: for shelters and masks. Whether the subsequent tragedy occurs because the masks and shelters are missing or because they can do nothing remains unclear. What emerges vividly in this spectacle is the image of mothers (p.55) panicking and killing their babies in the face of modern war; a potentiality that haunted the interwar popular imaginary.

Méric’s aim, like those of his fellow pacifists and anti-militarists, was the international prohibition of chemical munitions and not the provision of masks to civilians, but the potential of the gas mask to alleviate fear and reduce panic remained integral to the state’s efforts to develop défense passive. In particular, experiments to produce anti-gas protection for France’s most vulnerable population, babies and young children, continued. In contrast to the deployment of images of babies in gas masks to evoke fear and prompt action against war, these studies sought to use the gas mask to offer safety and reassurance. Doctoral theses presented to the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Paris in 1936, 1938, and 1939 all tested various refinements of devices to safeguard infants from aero-chemical attack, making clear that their efforts were as much about politics, including the management of civilians’ emotional responses, as about science.

When Germaine Puech presented her research to the Faculty of Medicine in 1936, she emphasised that ‘all efforts would be in vain to eliminate recourse to new arms: the war of tomorrow is an aero-chemical war’. Since this new threat could never be halted, the solution lay in ‘passive protection: to be well or badly protected is a question of life or death for the individual’. Furthermore, Puech compared France unfavourably with other countries such as Russia, Italy, Germany, and England, where, she claimed, schoolchildren learned to put on their masks and play games while wearing them.64 Her conclusion therefore argues not only for a better baby gas mask but also for popular mobilisation to accept such devices, to make them familiar rather than disturbing. Similarly, in his 1938 thesis George Dorey emphasised that children under five would have difficulty using gas masks, and instead tested one particular device, ‘sacs-berceaux’ [cradle bags], which provided ‘a sort of shelter in miniature, a portable shelter’ for the very young. He concluded this was far superior to any attempt at collective protection such as gas proof shelters.65

A year later Claude Mathieu presented a thesis that included notes from tests of anti-gas devices for infants in late September 1939 and powerfully highlighted the ‘demeanour’ of the test subjects. One new invention was the ‘type bagnoire’, a metal container resembling a bathtub with a covered roof with a window through which the mother could see the child and external bellows, which he investigated alongside two other models. Mathieu’s thesis provided his personal observations about the children under the age of two who tested these devices, in each case recording their weight, age, general state of health, time spent in each device, and noting their ‘demeanour’ in the anti-gas protection both during the test and afterwards. His summations thus included the emotional state of these infants. (p.56) For example, three-month-old Jean-Claude was ‘in a perfect state, smiling … breathing without modification’. Two-and-a-half-month-old Claude ‘avidly drank a bottle’ the moment that he came out of the ‘appareil baignoire’ [bathtub apparatus]. The behaviour of twenty-two-month-old Nicole placed in the appareil baignoire required a bit more explanation: ‘once it was made clear to her that she had nothing to fear, and despite some repugnance at the start, she was soon ready to show a good spirit at this experience’. The record further states that she fell asleep, woke up, and ‘played tranquilly in the interior of her shelter’. What becomes apparent is that the experiment assumed that these objects succeeded in their intention to safeguard babies not only physically but also emotionally, as they evoked responses of calm, security, and even happiness as shown in ‘smiling’ and ‘playing’ infants.66

Certainly, experiments involving placing a young child in a device that resembled such a fundamentally domestic object as an infant’s bath or a portable cradle were intended to be far less menacing than the children’s gas masks that illustrated pacifist texts. Whatever the initial fear and repugnance of one baby girl, the experiments sought to demonstrate how to conquer this negative emotional state and instead to induce calm. Whether or not these anti-gas devices delivered meaningful security and safety to the children and their caretakers mattered at least as much as the sense that they performed the crucial emotional work of reassurance.

Like many countries in the interwar decades, the French government, aided by its scientific and medical communities, felt little choice but to prepare to defend the bodies of men, women, and children to withstand aerial and chemical assaults. This included physical measures, but also implicitly the regulation of emotions via the rituals and objects associated with défense passive. And the pace of governmental preparations for chemical warfare intensified from the mid-1930s. For instance, France passed legislation in 1935 that expanded défense passive, splitting expenses between departments and local municipalities. Laws enacted in July 1938 to organise défense passive put the military in charge of a veritable civil mobilisation, embodied by the provision of civilian gas masks.67

Precise measures for the assignment of anti-gas protection accompanied the reorganisation of défense passive in the summer of 1938, with final modifications appearing in decrees about the distribution and costs of dispersing masks in April 1939.68 Alongside laws came manuals to instruct civilians, where the image of mothers and children in gas masks returned, this time to promote acceptance of these objects. These instructions use humour to normalise these domestic war preparations, as in a cartoon in the 1939 Défenses Passives & Actives des Non-combattants that shows a mother and child in gas masks talking to a neighbour (also in a mask) with the caption: ‘Oh the cherub. He’s the exact portrait of his (p.57) papa.’ The joke, of course, is that in the inhuman mask everyone looks the same; hilarious and macabre and perhaps secure at once.69

The gas mask was a cornerstone of défense passive. As the Second World War loomed, France made a concerted effort to increase the pace of production for gas masks and to expand their availability to overseas territories such as Algeria considered integral to the metropole. Furthermore, the French government ranked areas according to the likelihood of danger from attack and tried to distribute masks accordingly. It divided its territory into four categories and within the first category subdivided and ranked areas in terms of ‘urgency’. This concentrated on getting gas masks to Paris, as no other departments other than Seine-et-Oise and the Seine, which housed Paris, were marked at the highest level of urgency. The more rural, remote, and less populated an area was, the lower the sense of it being a priority to receive anti-gas protection; the last category included, for example, the departments of Calvados, Orne, Vendée, and Cantal.70

In reality, as the few studies of French civil defence have shown, the distribution of civilian gas masks fell short of the government’s goals. Nor did the masks always produce the desired emotional state. In her oral history of French children during the Second World War, Lindsey Dodd found a few who recounted being made afraid precisely because of being given a gas mask. Yet another girl told her ‘My father said “Allez hop!” (She mimed throwing the mask away).’71 Rather than instilling calm in the civilian population, the gas mask could also become a disposable emblem of futility in the face of modern weaponry.


By so clearly associating défense passive with protection against a ‘guerre aéro-chimique’, a potentially harrowing object, the civilian gas mask, became instead the emblem of the state’s commitment to the well-being of the individual. It harnessed the object of terror into one designed to register security and safety. By so doing, we can see the legacy of the first modern total war as one that forced the state to acknowledge that it now had to protect individual bodies as well as to defend borders. Alongside many other states, France chose the civilian gas mask as the main object with which to mark this fundamental shift. It was a device that blended the natural and mechanical in an effort to modulate the emotional state of its civilian population, now seen as a key to victory.

From the moment of their arrival during the First World War, civilian gas masks evoked deep feelings. These objects imprisoned the wearers and disguised (p.58) their most essential human features in order to sustain life. The gas mask was terrifying and laughable; and it haunted and shaped the wartime and interwar imagination. Yet as this exploration has demonstrated, the range of emotions generated by this device—terror, anxiety, security, fatalism, safety, ridicule, hilarity, futility—could not be so easily controlled. The gas mask demonstrates the fundamental interconnectedness of wartime emotions and objects. It encapsulates the emerging idea that states should try to regulate the emotions of their populations via the rituals and devices of civil defence. Gas masks reveal the ways in which individuals could channel their emotional responses to the traumas of war through their relationships with the strange new devices designed to enable their survival. If we want to understand on any level the transformations associated with total war, we need to pay close attention to the objects that embodied its shifting and unstable emotional regimes.


(*) My thanks to Lucy Noakes, Claire Langhamer, and Claudia Siebrecht for inviting me to contribute to this volume, and to Tammy Proctor and Joe Ward for comments on earlier drafts.

(1) Victor Méric, La Guerre qui Revient: Fraîche et Gazeuse! (Paris: Editions Sirius, 1932), p. 134. All translations from the French, unless otherwise noted, are my own.

(2) While aware of the difference implied by using the term ‘things’ rather than ‘objects’ in much of this scholarship, for the purposes of this chapter I am using ‘thing’, ‘object’, ‘device’, and any other synonyms interchangeably. In so doing, I am following the lead of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich et al., Tangible Things: Making History through Objects (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 2.

(3) Arjun Appadurai, ‘Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value’, in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 5.

(4) Daniel Miller, Stuff (Malden, MA: Polity, 2010), p. 42.

(6) Some notable examples by non-historians include studies by the anthropologist Nicholas Sanders, who points out that the First World War demonstrates the power of industrialised modern war to transform ‘matter through the agency of destruction’, in his Trench Art: Materialities and Memories of War (Oxford: Berg, 2003), p. 1 and explores the materiality of war in two edited collections, Paul Cornish and Nicholas J. Saunders (eds), Bodies in Conflict: Corporeality, Materiality, and Transformation (London: Routledge, 2014) and Nicholas J. Saunders (ed.), Matters of Conflict: Material Culture, Memory, and the First World War (London: Routledge, 2004). Arriving too late for incorporation into this study, one can now add Leora Auslander and Tara Zahra (eds), Objects of War: The Material Culture of Conflict and Displacement (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018).

(7) Langdon Winner, The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 19–39.

(8) The classic example is Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: Norton, 1997). For a recent innovative example, see Priya Satia, Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution (New York: Penguin, 2018).

(9) Geoffrey Parker (ed.), The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare: The Triumph of the West, revised ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

(10) John Ellis, The Social History of the Machine Gun (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).

(11) Ian Hodder, Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationship between Humans and Things (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

(14) Joanna Bourke, Wounding the World: How Military Violence and War-Play Invade Our Lives (London: Virago, 2014) has a provocative related discussion about how war is made possible both by combatants and their civilian counterparts normalising violence.

(15) For an overview, see Michael Howard et al. (eds), The Laws of War: Constraints on Warfare in the Western World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994).

(16) For a helpful discussion, see Tammy M. Proctor, Civilians in a World at War 1914–1918 (New York: New York University Press, 2010), pp. 17–19.

(17) Jonathan Krause, ‘The Origins of Chemical Warfare in the French Army’, War in History, 20/4 (2013), 545–6. Krause cites a ‘Rapport sur l’organisation du Service du Matériel Chimique de Guerre, présenté par M. D’Aubigny, Deputé, 25 August 1915’ as the source of information that the French were developing their earliest models based on respirators used in mines. See also I. F. Haber, The Poisonous Cloud: Chemical Warfare in the First World War (Oxford: Clarendon, 1986), p. 53.

(18) In one of the few anthropological studies of the gas mask that situates it within the field of the archaeology of modern conflict, Gabriel Moshenska has focused on its sensory impact in the memory of the children of the Second World War, but senses, while allied to them, are not emotions. See Gabriel Moshenska, ‘Gas Masks: Material Culture, Memory and the Senses’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 16 (2010), 609–28.

(19) AHR Conversation: ‘The Historical Study of Emotions’, American Historical Review (December 2012), William Reddy at 1509–10 and Barbara Rosenwein at 1515.

(20) ‘Historical Study of Emotions’, Rosenwein at 1515 and Eugenia Lean at 1519.

(21) As Jean Livingston puts it: ‘large-scale traumatic events like … war … can thrust familiar but latent affective possibilities into the foreground, linking recursive pasts to the present’, ‘Historical Study of Emotions’, 1520.

(22) There is an enormous literature on this. For a useful overview, see Tracey Loughran, ‘Shell Shock, Trauma and the First World War: The Making of a Diagnosis and Its Histories’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 67/1 (2012), pp. 94–119.

(23) ‘Historical Study of Emotions’, Jan Plamper at 1516. See also Jan Plamper, ‘Soldiers and Emotion in Early Twentieth-Century Russia Military Psychology’, in Jan Plamper and Benjamin Lazier (eds), Fear Across the Disciplines (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012).

(24) Bourke, Fear: A Cultural History (Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005), p. 195.

(25) Bourke, Fear, see pp. 197–221 for combatants and pp. 222–54 for civilians.

(26) See the analysis of letter writing in Martha Hanna, Your Death Would Be Mine (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); and, more importantly for this discussion, in Michael Roper, The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in World War One (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009). For the significance of the photograph, see Catherine Moriarty, ‘“Though in a Picture Only”: Portrait Photography and the Commemoration of the First World War’, in Gail Braybon (ed.), Evidence, History, and the Great War: Historians and the Impact of 1914–18 (New York: Berghahn, 2003).

(27) Philosopher Peter Sloterdijk claims that one can trace the moment the 20th century began with great precision to 22 April 1915. At this moment, military violence shifted from aiming at taking lives to destroying environments, thus begetting the age of terror and extermination: ‘in gas warfare, the deepest levels of people’s biological condition was incorporated into the attacks on them’. Peter Sloterdijk, ‘Airquake’, in Foams: Spheres III, trans. Wieland Hoban (South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e), 2016), p. 97. My thanks to Charlie Hueneman for this reference.

(30) ‘A propos des gaz asphyxiants’, L’Homme Libre (11 June 1915).

(31) Advertisement, ‘Au Parapluie du Soldat’, Le Matin (21 July 1915). See other advertisements both for gas masks in Le Matin (17 June and on 24 June, for workers to make them).

(32) ‘En Artois’, Le Flambeau (15 September 1915).

(33) Advertisement, ‘Pour Nos Soldats’, Le Flambeau (16 October 1915). This same advertisement is reproduced in the catalogue for the exhibit at the Historial de la Grande Guerre, Gaz! Gaz! Gaz!: La Guerre Chimique, 1914–1918 (Paris: Historial de la Grande Guerre, 2010), p. 33, crediting an earlier edition of Le Flambeau (4 September 1915).

(34) ‘Contre les gaz asphyxiants’, L’Humanité (24 October 1915).

(35) Olivier Lepick, ‘Des gaz et des hommes: populations civile, militaire et opinions publiques face à l’arme chimique pendant et dans l’immédiat après Grande Guerre’, in Gaz! Gaz! Gaz!, pp. 25–30. See also Olivier Lepick, La Grande Guerre Chimique (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1998).

(40) C. J. Rémy, Sous les bombes: Reims 1914–16. En plein soir, par la ville morte (Paris: A. Noel, [1916]), p. 3.

(42) See the discussion in Susan R. Grayzel, ‘Defence against the Indefensible: The Gas Mask, the State and British Culture during and after the First World War’, Twentieth Century British History, 25/3 (2014), 418–34.

(45) For details see ‘Instruction pour la population civile en cas d’attaque par les gaz’ (17 January 1916), Service Historique de la Défense (SHD) 16 N 839.

(48) L’Illustration (January 1916).

(49) Jeanne-Bénita Azaïs, Le Petit Ecolier de Reims (d’après le Journal de l’Ecole Dubail) (Paris: Larousse, 1918). The same illustration appears later in the text with the caption: ‘their young and fresh visages have disappeared’, p. 29.

(53) ‘Masques des Héroes’, La Vie Parisienne (25 August 1917).

(54) ‘Le dernière mode’, in ‘On dit … on dit’, La Vie Parisienne (1 September 2017).

(55) Data from Circulaire d’Application pour L’Instruction du 9 Août 1923 ‘La Protection de la Population contre les effets des bombardements aériens’, Archives Nationales (AN) F/7/13984. See Lindsey Dodd and Marc Wiggam, ‘Civil Defence as a Harbinger of War in France and Britain during the Interwar Period’, Synergies, 4 (2011), 139–50, especially 145 for a good overview of défense passive. As Roxanne Panchasi astutely observes, a great deal of energy was devoted to imagining and thus trying to shape the future in view of the devastation of the war. Roxanne Panchasi, Future Tense: The Culture of Anticipation in France between the Wars (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009), pp. 77–110.

(56) For specific law on chemical arms, see the ‘Declaration of St. Petersburg, 19 Nov. 1868’, in Avalon Project, Laws of War, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/decpeter.asp, ‘Declaration on the Use of Projectiles the Object of Which is the Diffusion of Asphyxiating or Deleterious Gases; July 29, 1899’, Article 23 of Hague Conventions 1907, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/dec99-02.asp and http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/hague04.asp (accessed 28 December 2017). For an overview, see Richard M. Price, The Chemical Weapons Taboo (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997).

(57) For the 1925 protocol and signatories, see the list of Treaties made available by the International Committee of the Red Cross: https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/ihl/INTRO/280?OpenDocument (accessed 29 December 2017).

(58) Colonel A. M. P. Vauthier, Le Danger Aérien et L’Avenir du pays (Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1930), p. 53.

(59) Dir. de la Sûreté Générale, ‘Instruction Pratique sur La Défense Passive contre les Attaques Aériennes’ (Paris: Charles-Lavauzelle, 1932). Cover notes the date of issue as 25 November 1931.

(60) Both pamphlets can be found in the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris (BHVP), Fonds Duchêne.

(61) Victor Méric, ‘La Guerre aux civils’ (Paris: Patrie Humaine, 1932); Méric, La Guerre qui Revient.

(64) Germaine Puech, ‘La Protection des Enfants et Guerre Aéro-chimique’, MD thesis (Academy of Medicine, Paris, 1936), pp. 11, 14.

(65) George Dorey, ‘La Protection des Enfants en bas âge contre les Gaz de Combat’, MD thesis (Academy of Medicine, Paris, 1938), p. 38.

(66) Claude Mathieu, ‘ La préservation des jeunes enfants contre les gaz de combat’, MD thesis (Academy of Medicine, Paris, 1939), pp. 44–9.

(67) ‘Legislation de la Défense Passive: Principaux Textes’ (Paris: Pro Civil, Paris, 1939), pp. 4–5.

(69) Jules Cotte, ‘Défenses Passives & Actives des Non-combattants’ (Paris: Autorisation Ministerielle, 1939); BHVP Actualités Défense Passive.

(70) See correspondence relating to distribution of masks in Service Historic de la Défence 9 N 298.

(71) Lindsey Dodd, French Children under the Allied Bombs, 1940–5 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), pp. 78–9.