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AEF Gasmasks & Respirators 1917 to 1919

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Despite the fact that there are already some very informative threads* on the subject of gasmasks as used by the AEF during World War I (WW I);I decided to go ahead and add my two cents on that subject … okay, maybe it’s more like three cents. Regardless of its worth, this post would have been far less informative, and much less visually pleasing, if it were not for the assistance I received from forum members. Trenchrat, Jagjetta, Rusty Canteen, and Retro, all of whom did not hesitate to supply me with advice, accurate information, high resolution period photos, and crisp clear photographs of many of the actual gasmasks and their carriers shown in this post. Any praise for this post should be directed towards them … World War I Nerd


PS, feel free to comment, corroborate, correct, contest, and continue this thread by posting pertinent information and by adding additional or better photographs.


*Link to the other USMF, WW I related gasmask threads put together by Rusty Canteen: http://www.usmilitariaforum.com/forums/index.php?/topic/172060-m1917-corrected-english-ce-gas-mask-haversacks/


AEF Gasmasks & Respirators

1917 to 1919

Photo No. 01: In the AEF, the importance of the gasmask was eventually considered to be second to that of only the soldier’s weapon. As such, the Army strived to make every recruit understand the value of looking after and keeping his gasmask in good order. Posters much like this one were prominently displayed in every training camp to ensure that America’s new soldiers were aware of the very grave danger that gas warfare posed.


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U.S. Army Gas Training

When America entered the Great War, gas was such an unknown weapon on the battlefield that senior military commanders were unwilling to allocate any training time to gas defense, especially if it meant reducing the number of hours devoted to more traditional military skills, such as close order drill and marksmanship, which were deemed essential.


The War Department’s lack of any kind of gas warfare doctrine was responsible for the U.S. Army’s woefully inadequate gas training program early in the war. In fact the first six divisions to arrive in France received no chemical warfare training at all while in America. As a result, the majority of American Doughboys found themselves in a gas soaked environment with very little, or no defensive gas training and very little understanding of what that training actually meant. The lack of knowledge and training in regard to gas bred both ignorance and superstition among the poorly educated and unsophisticated recruits and veterans that made up the majority of the AEF.


Photo No. 02: As the war progressed, so too did the gas training. British instructors arrived – Anti-gas lectures went from just one hour per week to five hours per week – Troops were compelled to wear gasmasks while participating in various activities such as firing weapons, marching, and playing sports – Recruits were made to don their masks and enter a “gas chamber” filled with chlorine gas, and then a tear gas filled chamber in which they were made to unmask – Plus, testing was done at the end of each training cycle. Here Doughboys become accustomed to their respirators during bayonet drill.


Photo courtesy of the John Adam-Graf collection


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“Gas Jitters”

By mid 1918, Army regulations required that every soldier shipping out to France have a certificate that indicated he had successfully completed gas training. Unfortunately, this requirement was usually ignored and men continued to arrive ‘Over There’ with only the bare minimum of gas training. A partial solution was that part of the time spent onboard the transport ship crossing the Atlantic was devoted to anti-gas instruction. Therefore, the average enlisted man arrived overseas with around 18 hours of gas defense training under his belt. This is why something known as “gas jitters” became a chronic problem for rookie Doughboys at the front. Until such time as the men received additional gas training or gained complete confidence in their respirators through actual experience, panic was the effect most often produced when the gas alarm was sounded. The terror described in this letter written by the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 18th Infantry, which seized 1st Division troops shortly after they entered the line in the Ansauville sector in January of 1918, is a testament to the AEFs lack of gas training during the first few months of the war:


One man in a panic stampeded and knocked down two others adjusting their masks. He rushed down the trench screaming and made no attempt to put on his respirator. He died shortly after reaching the dressing station. Another man threw himself into the bottom of a trench and began to scream. Two others trying to help him adjust his respirator had their own pulled off and were gassed. He was finally carried out of the area but died not long after. Another private couldn’t find his respirator and became panic stricken. When it was found and finally adjusted, he claimed it was broken and changed into his French mask, breathing in gas while changing. On the way to the dressing station he repeatedly pulled the French mask away from his face and breathed the gas laden air and died shortly after reaching the station


Lieutenant Colonel H.G. Shaw, CO 3rd Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, AEF

Another eyewitness account conveyed the bedlam and apprehension experienced by poorly trained Doughboys after they had been awoken by the sound of a gas alarm:


Now the camp is a seething confusion. Pistols klaxons, wash pan drums, shouts, shrieks, prayers, groans, and curses contribute to the din, “Gas! Gas! Gas!” Now and then from the mélange of sounds comes a coherent cry: “Where the hell’s my mask? I can’t find my mask – lemme take yours?” – this latter a crazed, anguished shriek. Then the smothered reply: “Go to hell.”

Someone dazed and half asleep crawls out of his pup tent and looks around. Suddenly realizing the import of the racket he dives back in. Blankets, clothes, and general equipment comes flying out in rapid-fire disorder, accompanied by shrieks which grow steadily in volume. “I can’t find it!” “I’m gassed!’ “I’m dying!” The pup-tent is suddenly uprooted and kites upward into a tree “It’s gone!” I’m gassed!” I’m gassed!’ A member of the masked rabble stops his rush through the woods long enough to point out … the missing mask. It had been under his knees since the search began. He claps it onto his face, sticks his nose into the clip and faints. He has had too much for one night’s entertainment.


It was a false alarm. There was no gas. The only casualties are barked shins and bruised heads. The men are coming sheepishly back to their wrecked shelter tents. But the alarm has had its wholesale effect. The gas mask has ceased to be an incubus. It has assumed a personal relationship.


Captain Robert Joseph Casey, Battery C, 124th Field Artillery Regiment, 33rd Infantry Division, AEF

Still another Doughboy made the following entry into his diary on September 30, 1918. It described the inability of one of his tent mates to cope with finding and donning his gasmask in a timely fashion during an alleged gas attack:

Charley McQueen, Allgret Johnson, Irwin Lindsey and I pitched out tents together. We made our bed in there for the night. We were still on the front, yet not quite so near the front lines that old Jerry wouldn’t shell us once in a while.


That night the gas alarm rang and Johnson grabbed my gas mask. We had an augment [sic] for awhile, and I said it might be his so I gave it to him. He was gone to put it on when he found his own tied to his chest, he hand it back again. I made up my mind that I would never give up my mask again. There was no gas anyhow that time. We hadn’t more than went to sleep when the gas alarm sounded again. Johnson grabbed my haversack out [from] under my head and tried to put that on for a gas mask. It’s a wonder he was killed. He was always complaining about getting killed anyhow.

Private First Class William A. Livergood, Company E, 305th Ammunition Train, 80th Infantry Division, AEF

Meanwhile, a combat officer noted how one of the untried men in his command reacted in the confusion of a dimly lit dugout during the regiments very first gas attack:


We had been assigned to Gen. Liggett’s First Army Corps. Gas masks and helmets were issued to us here. Gas drills were held under Capt. Ballman, the regimental gas officer, who later distinguished himself in the Chemical Warfare Service. Owing to the shortness of our stay here thorough gas discipline was not attained until after actual experience … The first time one of the companies was under a gas concentration, one of the soldiers who could not readily find his mask in the darkness of the dug-out held his tin cup over his nose and mouth and clapped his mess pan on his head. Some protection!


Major Chester W. Davis, 1st Pioneer Infantry Regiment, AEF

Photo No. 03: This cartoon drawn by Captain Alban Butler of the 1st Division, from his book titled Happy Days, published in 1920, is a humorous depiction of the fear and anxiety that took place in any trench, camp or dugout when the gas alarm sounded.


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AEF Gas Training

In May of 1918, when U.S. divisions were moving into the line in increasing numbers, it was noted that AEF gas casualties rose dramatically. Because this was attributed to inadequate gas training, GHQ issued General Orders No. 144 issued in August 1918, authorized the appointment of a gas officer to each AEF organization. According to the order one gas officer and one assistant in the form of an NCO were required for each regiment, battalion, and separate unit. In addition two gas NCOs were appointed to each company within each organization. After attending either an AEF or Corps Gas Defense School, the duties of gas officers and NCOs included further training the men in the use of their gasmasks, setting up gas alarm systems, supervising the construction of gas proof shelters, and attending to any other gas related defensive measures. In combat they inspected all anti-gas equipment, determined when gasmask filter canisters required changing, issued new gasmasks when needed, and monitored all enemy gas tactics. Because the Doughboy practice of yelling “gas” as a practical joke slowed down the men’s overall reaction to a gas alarm, a 3rd Division gas officer responded with a division general order which partially read:


The attention of all ranks is directed to the ever increasing importance of gas warfare … there should be no joking about gas. Men should not contract the habit of yelling “gas” as a joke, even when they are away from the front, and should be summarily disciplined for this offense.


3rd Division General Order, date & number unknown

Gas officers also ensured that the troops knew when to wear the gasmask and when to unmask, how to clean, care for, and repair their gasmask, as well as how to detect the various types of poisonous gases and the effects that they had on the human body. Whenever possible, this often included a visit to the nearest base hospital so the men could see firsthand what would happen to them if they didn’t don or adjust their gasmask in a timely fashion. Consequently, gas mask drills, in which the men were required to don the masks in no less than six seconds, were emphasized more than any other aspect of gas training. Repeating the gas drill over and over ensured that the men would don and properly “adjust” their gasmasks. The drill also stressed the importance of accomplishing this feat as rapidly as possible, as noted by the following soldier:


At gas mask drill all morning. We are training now for speed that will enable us to adjust the mask in the required six seconds. “Doing it by the numbers”.


Private First Class George A. Morrice, 102nd Field Signals Battalion, 27th Infantry Division, AEF

Photo No. 04: By the numbers, which on this photo is shown from right to left, was a reference to each movement needed to complete the task of donning and adjusting ones gasmask.


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Photo No. 05: This well published publicity photo was released to show the American public the equipment that the average U.S. infantryman carried in the spring of 1918. It clearly shows the British SBR – the primary gasmask, as well as the French M2 reserve “mask”.


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Photo No. 06: Both the primary gasmask and the reserve mask are shown here. Two American Doughboys wearing British SBRs have positioned the respirator’s haversack in the “alert” position. To the right, another soldier who’s donned his French M2 Gasmask wears its mussette bag in the “carry” position on the left hip.


Photo courtesy of the John Adam-Graf collection


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Photo No. 07: Every Doughboy in the Zone of Advance, which was defined as the 12 miles of real estate immediately behind the front lines was to have either a SBR or M2 Gasmask, or both in his possession at all times. Within the first 10 miles of the Zone of Advance, the SBR could be worn in the “carry” position, slung from the right shoulder with the satchel resting on the left hip. The reconstruction of an MP on the left and the soldier sporting a German helmet have both slung their gasmask satchels in the carry position.


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Photo No. 08: In the “Gas Alert Zone” or the 5 miles directly behind the front lines, GHQ decreed that each soldier was to be clean shaven, with the exception of moustaches, as the seal of the SBRs facepiece was found to be less effective when worn against skin that bristled with stubble. This is why Uncle Sam began issuing shaving kits to every soldier destined for overseas service early in 1918. Prior to the Army issuing shaving kits, each soldier was required to supply his own shaving gear. One Doughboy mentioned the importance of shaving in a letter home:


One never saw soldiers with beards in this war. The face must be clean shaven everyday so that the gasmask would fit tightly around the face. Our razors were a very necessary part of our equipment. A daily shave was a military order. When in combat this was not an easy order to obey but we managed to somehow. There were many times we shaved in half a cup of coffee after drinking the first half.


Unknown AEF Doughboy

Right, this period advertisement shows a typical “Army Razor”. At left an 80th Division Doughboy attends to the task for which the razor was designed.

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Photo No. 09: Within 2 miles of the front, in what was called the “Gas Danger Zone”, the primary gasmask had to be carried in the “alert” or “ready” position at all times so that it could be donned at a moment’s notice. In addition, the chinstrap of the helmet was to be worn on the tip of the chin to facilitate its rapid removal. Both of these Doughboys are wearing their respirators in the alert position.


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Photo No. 10: When in the alert position, the gasmask satchel was worn outside of the clothing, high up on the chest. When properly positioned, the side of the satchel with the lift-the-dot or snap flap fasteners was placed against the wearer’s chest to prevent mud, dirt and debris from entering the satchel when crawling on the ground. Orders further proclaimed that nothing was to be slung across the chest in such a way as to interfere with removing the gasmask from its satchel. The reserve gasmask remained in the “carry” position, resting on either the left or right hip. Its sling was to pass under, not over the sling of the SBR.


In the alert position, the satchel was to be tightly secured to the body by means of a waxed “body cord” tied onto the satchel as shown by this Doughboy. The right hand photo shows the proper method of securing the satchel tight against the torso. The waxed cord passed through the satchel’s right hand D-ring and under the right arm, then up through the satchel’s sling behind the neck, and under the left arm. It was then pulled taut and tied to the satchel’s left hand D-ring. The inset show a body cord passing through a British style sling.


Photos courtesy of the Rusty Canteen collection


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Photo No 11: When away from the front, both the British SBR and American made gasmasks were sometimes slung “British style” hanging from the back of the haversack. Here homeward bound troops of the Advanced or Intermediate Sector, Service of Supply (right), and a Marine from the 5th Marine Regiment (left) have slung their gasmask satchels out of the way so that they rest on the rolled shelter half. Note the Red Cross ditty bag carried by the lower, left hand SOS soldier.


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Photo No. 13: At the front, part of the Military Police responsibilities were to enforce AEF anti-gas regulations in the sectors or zones that were deemed to be Gas Alert and Gas Danger Zones. In the former, the gasmask was to be carried or kept within immediate reach. In the latter, the only manner in which the respirator could be carried was in the alert position. According to the Provost Marshals’ Manual:


The Military Police enforce these orders, and allow no one to proceed in the zones in question without gas respirators carried in the manner prescribed. The Military Police assist so far as is consistent with the police duties in giving the gas alarm and awakening those who are asleep. The Military police give warning of gassed areas to persons approaching same.


Provost Marshals’ Manual, 1918, page 33

The AEF orders regarding gasmasks extended to all non-military personnel that operated or passed through either the Gas Alert or Gas Danger Zones. Neither the U.S. Army nurse on the left, nor the Salvation Army volunteer on the right, would have been permitted to enter either zone without having a respirator carried in the prescribed manner.


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American Small Box Respirator

Designed for service in France, but only used as a “training mask” in the United States from August 1917 until the 27,000 units produced were exhausted

The British, upon request by Captain Boothby, had tested twenty thousand gas masks received from the United States and had found them entirely unsuitable for use on the battlefield. Fries* knew that he would have to look for other sources of supply and took immediate steps to purchase British masks, or box respirators, as they were called, and French M2 masks.


The Chemical Warfare Service: Organizing for War, 1989, Leo P. Brophy & J.B. Fiser, page 7

The above words explained the fate of the very first shipment of the American made gasmasks that were hastily devised, delivered, and then rejected by the AEF in the summer of 1917.


The American Small Box Respirator (ASBR), as that gasmask was called, after being unmercifully “hammered” by the British, was nothing short of an abject failure. With the U.S. Army’s newly minted Gas Service off to a shaky start, GHQ, AEF was forced to adopt the British Small Box Respirator as its primary gasmask, and the French M2 Gasmask as an “emergency protective device”. On August 22, 1918, an initial order for 600,000 British SBRs and 100,000 French M2s was placed by the AEF. Additional orders would follow. Those two respirators would be carried and worn along with various other gasmasks of British, French, American, and even German manufacture by the men and boys of the AEF to protect them from the adverse effect of the poisonous gasses employed on the Western Front.


*Colonel Amos A. Fries was the commander of the fledgling AEF Gas Service.


By 1917 every European army, whether it was aligned with the Central Powers or the Allied Nations had its own respirator or gasmask. In April of that year when America entered into the War to End All Wars, the U.S. Army had virtually no defensive gas equipment that it could call its own.


To rectify this, the War Department tasked the U.S. Army Surgeon General and the Medical Department with designing and overseeing the manufacture of an American made gasmask. In turn, the job of actually designing the first American made respirator of the war was turned over to the U.S. Bureau of Mines as that Government agency had some experience in the art of designing gasmasks which were capable of filtering out the poisonous gas often found in underground mines. Work on what would become the American Small Box Respirator (ASBR) began in May of 1917. Under incredible pressure to conceive a new mask quickly, the American design team compressed what took England two years to develop into just 21 days.


The design of the ASBR was modeled after the British SBR. Once completed, the hastily conceived gasmask was rushed into production in July. By August, the first 20,000 ASBRs had arrived in France to be issued to the first contingent of the AEF. Unfortunately, it was not handshakes all around for a job well done, as the mask was rejected as soon as British gas experts got their hands on them. The English immediately declared that its mouthpiece was too large and too stiff. They also let it be known that the ASBRs rubberized facepiece was not impervious to the potent chemical agents that were currently being used by the German Army. In addition, the soda-lime granules, which absorbed the poison inside the filter canister were deemed to be too soft and easily clogged the filter making it exceedingly difficult for the user to draw air. Upon rejection, the entire shipment of ASBRs was returned to America where they were reclassified as a “training mask”. The entire production run of 25,000 masks made between August and October of 1917 were issued to recruits in America for training purposes until the entire supply was exhausted.


Photo No. 14: A number of British NCOs with firsthand experience in gas warfare were shipped to America to instruct the soon to be Doughboys on the importance of the gasmask. Throughout what remained of 1917, all gas training done in America was accomplished with the ASBR and a new “Training” Gasmask, whose filters weren’t even capable of screening smoke. The inset shows an ASBR, whose most recognizable features are the tall black filter canister and the twine that secured each of the mask’s eyepieces to the rubberized facepiece.


Inset courtesy of the Dan-Retro on the forums collection


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Photo No. 15: The easiest way to identify an ASBR is by its eyepieces. The eyepieces of the entire production run of ASBRs were partially held in place by twine. Whereas the eyepieces on later U.S. made gasmasks were attached by means of a rolled aluminum or steel rim. The ASBRs filter canister was also much taller than those used on both the British SBR and every U.S. made gasmasks, except the American Training Gasmask. In addition the ASBRs filter canister was painted black. The black color indicated that it was unable to filter out any chemical agents. The black training filter was abolished shortly after the American Corrected English Gasmask was perfected towards the end of 1917. Note the cardboard container which housed the ASBRs anti-dimming compound in the center photograph.


Photos courtesy of the Dan-Retro on the forums, collection


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American Training Gasmask

Used only for training purposes in the United States

Along with the assistance of an expert or two from the United Kingdom, American gasmask engineers toiled to design a “real mask”. In the quest to perfect the design flaws of the ASBR every gas mask produced between July and October of 1917, were hybrids of the British SBR, American SBR, and what would eventually be the U.S. Corrected English Model Respirator. Because these gasmasks were not fit for service they were all classified as “experimental”, and not one was shipped overseas. Collectively, these masks were officially named the American Training Gasmask (ATG). The ATGs were used only by the Doughboys training in the wooden cantonments and tent cities that had sprung up practically overnight all across America.


Photo No. 17: Doughboys in training wearing what are probably ATGs in a mock trench somewhere in the U.S. The inset shows a well preserved ATG.


Inset courtesy of the New Romantic collection

Background image courtesy of the John Adam-Graf collection


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Photo No. 18: Exterior and interior view of a “petrified” ATG. Note the new smooth rolled aluminum rims around the eyepieces, the tall black filter canister, and the fact that the padding on the nose clamp has fallen off.


Photos courtesy of the Dan-Retro on the forums, collection


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Photo No. 19: It’s likely that the ATGs experienced a number of external changes until the time they were perfected and renamed the Corrected English Model. However, most can be identified by the combination of a tall black filter canister and the rolled aluminum rim around each eyepiece. The numerals 1 through 6, stamped onto the front of each mask, represented the size of the facepiece. A matching size number was also stamped onto the flap of the gasmask’s satchel. On the right is a Doughboy wearing the ATG.


Gasmask photo courtesy of the New Romantic collection

Doughboy photo courtesy of the John Adam-Graf collection


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Photo No. 22: Photo No. 21: Despite the fact that the U.S. Army Chemical Service developed 11 different filter canisters lettered ‘A’ through ‘K’ during WW I, the most common filter canisters encountered on U.S. gasmasks were from left to right:


  • The black type ‘A’ canister which was for training only. All black canisters offered no protection against either gas or smoke. Black canisters were used exclusively on the ASBR and ATG.
  • The red type ‘?’ canister is believed to have been one of the lettered predecessors (‘B’ through ‘G’) of the yellow type ‘H’ canister. It was likely used on one of the variations of the ASBR or ATG.
  • The yellow type ‘H’ canister which offered the greatest protection against both smoke and gas was used on the CEM and RFK Gasmasks. The yellow canister was arguably the most widely used American gasmask filter canister of the war.
  • The green type ‘J’ canister which offered only “sufficient protection” against smoke and gases. It was used on the CE, RFK, AT, KT, as well as on other late war experimental gasmasks. In 1918, the less effective ‘J’ filter canister was chosen over the more efficient ‘H’ canister because it was easier for the user to breathe through. The rational for this was explained thusly:


If soldiers wearing gas masks in defensive positions experienced a variety of problems, they encountered even more difficulties when they shifted to the offensive. The standard issue American or British SBR made normal breathing difficult; it made obtaining sufficient oxygen during heavy exertion, such as infantry attacks across No Man’s Land, impossible.



Chemical Warfare in World War I: The American Experience, 1984, Major Charles E. Heller, page 65


  • The top of a decommissioned filter canister (which is not shown) of any type or color was painted red to identify that it was no longer serviceable.

Photos courtesy of the Rusty Canteen & Dan-Retro on the forums, collections


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Photo No. 23: The majority of ATGs satchels were of U.S. manufacture, but they featured a British style sling. A sling of this type is easily identified by the leather tab located on the bags right hand side, two brass studs on the sling, and adjustable brass hooks found on opposing sides of the shoulder strap. On this particular satchel most of the leather tab has broken off. Also of interest are the coiled body cord, and the size No. 3 stamped onto the flap. The insets to the left show:


  • The red ink stamp under the flap,that was present on most ATG satchels. It indicated that the mask was “for training purposes only”.
  • A close up of one of the sling’s two brass studs.
  • The large brass hook that when engaged with the stud shortened the sling so that the satchel could be worn in the alert position
  • The leather tab which when engaged also shortened the sling.

Photos courtesy of the New Romantic collection


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