The British SBR in the AEF
In the absence of an effective American made gasmask, the British SBR was adopted by the AEF as its primary gasmask as it was considered by GHQ to be the most advanced respirator employed by any army on the Western Front in 1917. Over the course of the next year, many American Doughboys would become well acquainted with the intricacies of the British made breathing apparatus, because they would not see an American made gasmask until the late spring or early summer of 1918.
As soon as the English mask was adopted the Chief Quartermaster, AEF placed an order for 100,000 British SBRs, with a minimum of 75,000 masks to be delivered no later than December 1, 1918. That date was selected because it was the date projected date when the first contingent of Doughboys would enter the line. In October of 1918 the initial order was expanded to 300,000 masks. With no SBRs in hand, and with the December 1st deadline rapidly approaching, a telegram was dispatched to England inquiring when the SBRs would be delivered. Surprisingly, the English reply stated that the British SBRs would not be forthcoming. This was because they had been informed that the U.S. had been producing a new gasmask to be used by the AEF.* Further cables prompted another unexpected response which partially read:
English Government could not deliver the masks because they did not have enough for their own use … and that no masks could be expected from there [England] for 3 to 5 months.
Chemical Warfare, 1921, Brigadier General Amos A. Fries & Major Clarence J. West, page106
*At the time the British Government didn’t realize that all of the gasmasks made in the U.S. during 1917, were classified as “experimental”, and therefore not suitable to be worn in combat.
After a flurry of cablegrams, followed by a visit to the British Royal Engineers’ officer in charge of Britain’s entire gasmask production, the minimum quantity of SBRs needed were delivered between December 1917 and January 1918. All of these masks were issued to the 1st and 42nd Divisions. Unfortunately, a large portion of them consisted of size No. 2 and smaller, which were far too small for the average Yank to wear! A member of the ‘Rainbow’ Division recalled the day his company was marched to a British supply depot where British SBRs were issued:
Sunday morning a hike was made to a British supply depot some 8 km away, where we were presented with steel helmets and gasmasks. Entering a large tent, and English soldier who seemed to be somewhat of an expert at judging the faces, shouted out the mask sizes. It was no. 4, no. 2, no. 3 as fast as the men filed in, and with few exceptions, he seemed to hit it right off.
Corporal William Shoemaker, Company A, 168th Infantry Regiment, 42nd Infantry Division, AEF
A soldier serving with one of the U.S. divisions, that at one time was loaned out to the British Army took note of the day he was given a dead man’s gasmask that had been salvaged and refurbished. He also recalled the following words uttered by the English NCO, whose duty was to instruct the company in the use of the masks they had received:
The sergeant in charge left these parting words, “These are all good masks, every one of em’s seen service. The fellows who ad em all ‘went west’ some owe ort other and now they’ve been fixed up for you un’s.
Unknown AEF Doughboy
In total, the AEF purchased nearly 700, 000 British SBRs during the course of the Great War. With the exception of the eight AEF divisions that served for various lengths of time with the U.S. II Army Corps under the control of the British 3rd Army from February 1918 until the end of the war, the majority of American Doughboys received an American made gasmask beginning in May of 1918.
Wearing the SBR whether it was of British or U.S. origin universally provoked an unfavorable reaction from all ranks. After wearing a respirator for the hour long hike back to barracks and ambulance driver came to the following conclusion:
They seem beastly devices to us. Many resolved to die of poisonous gas rather than wear such atrocious coverings.
1st Lieutenant Harry L. Smith, Ambulance Company No. 21, 4th Sanitation Train, 4th Infantry Division, AEF
The commanding officer of the 30th Division’s engineer regiment confessed his personal feelings in regard to wearing the SBR in his personal diary:
The gasmask almost gets the best of me. I nearly suffocate with it, and can hardly control myself from tearing it off. This is the worst phase of the war to me.
Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Hyde Pratt, CO 105th Engineer Regiment, 30th Infantry Division, AEF
Finally, an artilleryman serving with the 2nd Infantry Division could think of nothing more to say about the dreaded SBR than:
Drew gasmasks, some doohickeys.
Sergeant Joseph J. Gleeson, 12th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, AEF
While effective at filtering out all of the chemical agents used by the German Army, the British SBR was still less than perfect. During its tenure with the AEF, American gas officers compiled this list of the mask’s shortcomings:
- The mask’s unnatural method of respiration, which could only be accomplished by inhaling air through the mouth, was difficult to become accustomed to. This method of respiration also caused the throat to become exceptionally dry.
- The use of a mouthpiece greatly increased salivation. Swallowing the excess saliva became a difficult task when the nose was held closed by the nose-clip.
- The exposed flexible rubber hose was vulnerable to damage.
- The lack of ventilation within the mask’s rubberized facepiece trapped both heat and moisture, which collected on, and fogged up the eyepieces.
- The mask caused extreme discomfort which became intense when the mask was worn for a long period of time. This was primarily caused by the snug fit of the facepiece; the tight nose-clip, and by the stiff rubber mouthpiece which had to be firmly clamped between the user’s teeth.
Photo No. 39: The flutter-valve guard was only present on the first pattern British SBR. For reasons unknown the valve guard was unpopular in the field and had completely disappeared by early to mid 1917. This series of photos show the first pattern British SBR with a flutter valve guard.
Photos courtesy of Dan-Retro on the forums collection