In the past few months in New Zealand, people wearing masks as protection from a potentially deadly virus has been a common sight. This is not the first time masks were worn daily by a country's residents.

During World War II, around 38 million gasmasks were distributed to UK citizens to protect them from gas bombs, which could be dropped during air raids. Fortunately, they were never needed.

The first large-scale use of chemical weapons was during World War I, and ranged from tear gas which disabled victims, to lethal gases such as chlorine and mustard gas. Mustard gas was the deadliest of all the poisonous chemicals. It took 12 hours to take effect, could be added to high-explosive shells and it was almost odourless. Because it was so powerful, only a small amount was needed to inflict devastating effects and there was always a fear it could be used against innocent civilians.

Although there are versions of gasmasks dating back to the early 19th century, World War I brought about the need for mass production of masks for soldiers. In 1915, a smoke hood was invented by Cluny MacPherson. Using a helmet taken from a captured German prisoner, he added a canvas hood with eyepieces and a breathing tube. The helmet was treated with chemicals that would absorb the chlorine used in the gas attacks. After a few improvements, Macpherson's helmet became the first gasmask to be used by the British Army.

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In 1943, an anti-gas respirator was developed by the British. This was lighter and easier to use as it was made of a plastic and rubber-like material which fitted the face snugly. It had a separate filter that could be replaced easily and replaceable plastic lenses. Soldiers and civilians were issued with these masks and were taught how to use them by the Civil Defence department. Children received gasmask education and training in school. Schools strictly enforced the compulsory carrying of gasmasks at all times and children would be made to wear them during everyday activities, including sports.

Babies had special cradle-like respirators, which would only be issued if an emergency arose. Babies were put inside the cradle, and when all the covering flaps were folded and the straps closed up, the baby was totally enclosed. There was an asbestos filter on the side of the mask, and this absorbed poisonous gases. Attached to this was a rubber tube shaped like a concertina with a handle. This was pushed back and forth to pump air into the mask. With the baby inside the mask, an adult could start to use the hand pump.

A Royal Canadian Army gasmask. Whanganui Regional Museum Collection ref: 2014.2.3
A Royal Canadian Army gasmask. Whanganui Regional Museum Collection ref: 2014.2.3

During World War I, horses were often fitted out with gasmasks. Deployed for carrying communications and messengers and for pulling ambulances, field kitchens, ordnance, field guns and supply wagons, it was vital they were protected from poisonous gas attacks.

Dogs also played many roles, serving in both world wars and masks were adapted for them to wear. They were trained to deliver messages in combat and sometimes carried small packages of food, cigarettes, explosives or other supplies to soldiers in the trenches. Some military dogs pulled small vehicles packed with arms, equipment, supplies and food. On patrol, military dogs would often sense a chemical threat much sooner than their human handlers.

The Whanganui Regional Museum has a Royal Canadian Army gasmask dating from World War II in its collection. It is a full-face mask consisting of a filter cartridge canister, a flexible face-covering piece with glass eyepieces and an elastic head harness. A metal inlet-outlet assembly is positioned on the mask's front and it connects to a short corrugated-rubber hose. The corrugated hose is made from moulded rubber covered in a stockinet material.

* Kathy Greensides is collection assistant at Whanganui Regional Museum.