"Gas! Gas! Quick, boys": Stories of gas attacks during the First World War on Europeana

By Sarah Jackson | 02 May 2014

Objects found on the Europeana online portal reveal the horror felt by soldiers attacked with gas during the First World War.

Black and white image of clouds of gas rolling towards and into a central trench containing men wearing gas masks.
Gas attack exercise, First World War© Europeana 1914-1918
Of all the new weaponry developed during the trench warfare of the First World War, none have proved to be as enduringly haunting as the steady roll of an incoming poison gas cloud.

Although only 3% of gas casualties proved fatal, hundreds of thousands of soldiers suffered with the after-effects of such attacks for years afterwards. The high survival rate was largely due to the effectiveness of the counter-measures quickly developed by all sides.

Despite this, gas attacks remain even today one of the most terrifying images of the First World War, not least because of the ghoulish appearance of the very masks that saved countless soldiers’ lives.

Photograph of seven men wearing gas masks and carrying bayonets standing in a trench lined with sandbags.
Soldiers wearing gas masks in a trench during the First World War© Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig
Despite the newly developed protective equipment, gas attacks injured thousands of people, civilian and military. Soldiers such Private James Henry Brown were left with severely damaged lungs after the war and often had long periods of convalescence to recover from the initial attacks.

Some, like Private John Robert Ratcliffe passed their time in hospital by making things, such as this cushion cover that he used in the different hospitals he stayed in on his journey home to Blackburn. The cover was passed down to his great-niece who continued to use the cushion well into the 1970s.

The lives of men such as Private Brown and Private Ratcliffe will have become family legends but are still unknown to the general public.

Now, thanks to a pan-European project by Europeana.eu, stories submitted by the public can sit beside the archives of national collections and film archives to create Europeana 1914-1918. This unique archive tells the story of the First World War from all sides of the conflict.

Thanks to contributions from the public, users from all over the world can view the war diary of Edward Roe, a professional soldier who not only survived five years of active service during the war in Northern France, Gallipoli and Mesopotamia but also possessed a natural talent for descriptive writing.

The diary records pivotal moments from the war, including the early days of trench warfare and terrifying first gas attacks, from an invaluable first-hand perspective.

A gas mask with a khaki green air filter and eye holes.
Gas mask belonging to Leonhard Michel, a German soldier© Europeana 1914-1918
Objects belonging to soldiers perhaps paint an even more vivid picture of what life must have been like, such as a gas mask belonging to Leonhard Michel, a German soldier, or the binoculars belonging to Lt. Arthur Mann, who not only survived being shot down by the Red Baron himself in Northern France but also survived a gas attack in the trenches.

The after-effects of such traumas can also be traced, such as the dark glasses given to Frans Wuyts after being temporarily blinded in a chlorine attack, or a notification of the death of Thomas F Barrett after being gassed at “The Front” in August 1916.

Below is a selection of objects from Europeana 1914-1918 that chronicle the personal histories of both those who made it back home after the war and those who tragically lost their lives.

Click below to launch the gallery of images.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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