Object of the Week: A gas mask worn by a German soldier in the First World War trenches

By Ben Miller | 24 September 2015

This week we bring you a mask worn by a German soldier during World War One

A photo of a green gas mask worn by a German soldier in the trenches during World War One
© Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter City Council
This gas mask was worn by a German soldier in the trenches. It covered the soldier’s eyes and mouth to limit injury by chemical gas, but the rest of the head remained uncovered.

The metal filter cartridge contained charcoal and an anti-gas chemical to stop the soldier inhaling lethal gases. This filter was made by AGFA – more commonly known for making cameras and photographic equipment, but manufacturers of metal goods including gas mask cartridges during the war.

In 1919, Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum was given a collection of German military equipment gathered by the British War Trophies Commission after the Armistice. Over the years, the mask had become misshapen as the rubber, textile and metal it is made from began to disintegrate.

A photo of two people in white coats in a laboratory looking at a green gas mask worn by a German soldier in the trenches during World War One
Museum conservator Sarah Klopf and student Hana Bristow taking a look at the mask© Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter City Council
Careful cleaning and reshaping by conservation student Hana Bristow revealed several ink stamps including a number ‘3’, indicating the size of the mask, and marks denoting quality testing.

The manufacture date, ‘15/9/15’, shows it was made 100 years ago – coinciding with the German army’s first use of lethal gases as a weapon, violating the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare.

In retaliation the first recorded gas attack by the British forces was on September 25 1915, ten days after this mask was made.

Another item donated with this collection of ‘war relics’ was a storage tin which soldiers wore on a straps across their bodies so their masks were ready to use at all times.

Although it is not thought to be directly related to the mask it is similar to one that would have been carried by the owner of the mask. The name of the German soldier it belonged to, thought to read ‘Zang 5./18.’, is painted on its lid is painted. Nothing is currently known about this soldier or his service during the war.

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