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AEF Gasmasks & Respirators 1917 to 1919

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The U.S. CEM Gasmask was considered to be the best respirator on the Western Front. However, reports from the front informed the gasmask’s designers of the following problems associated with the CEM Gasmask:

  • Its fuller cut of its facepiece increased the mask’s dead air space, making it more difficult to clear.
  • The celluloid eyepieces on early variations of the mask were poorly installed and had a tendency to fall out.
  • While more efficient, the filter canister was heavier than its British counterpart.
  • The superior filtration capabilities of the CEMs filter canister made it more difficult to draw air during heavy exertion.
  • The mask continued to be extremely uncomfortable to wear for a prolonged period of time. A member of the 42nd Division had this to say about the SBR:


It grew horribly uncomfortable, for the continued sucking of air through the mouth dries the saliva and the tongue swells. The pressure of the nose clip also is extremely irritating after an hour. It was stand it or die … Gas masks on for 5 hours and it’s no joke.

Private Joseph J. Jones. 165th Infantry, 42nd Infantry Division, AEF

Photo No. 50: It didn’t take long for the enlisted men to realize that the gasmask, like the training mask worn by this Army recruit on kitchen patrol, was suitable for filtering out other eye and nose irritating agents such as onions. The insets show the interior of the CEM mask and a close up of its rubber padded nose-clip.


Background image courtesy of the John Adam-Graf collection

Gasmask photos courtesy of the New Romantic collection


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Like the British SBR, the American CEM mask was comprised of 11 basic components.

  1. The gasmask carrier or “satchel” (not shown) which was slung form either the shoulder or from the neck.
  2. The metal filter canister whose filling neutralized and absorbed the harmful chemical agents from the air that passed through it.
  3. The flexible rubber hose which connected the filter canister to the angle joint that protruded from the rubberized facepiece.
  4. The “flutter” or “exhalation” valve that was designed to close when the wearer inhaled clean air through the filter canister, and open when the user exhaled.
  5. The flexible rubberized facepiece, which was sometimes referred to as a “hood”. It fit the face snugly around the edges, and covered the lower forehead, eyes, nose, cheeks, mouth, and chin.
  6. Either celluloid or gas-proof Triplex glass eyepieces, through which vision was maintained.
  7. The elastic head-harness, which held the facepiece in place on the head.
  8. The body cord (not shown) which was used to tie the satchel firmly to the torso. In addition to preventing the satchel from bouncing. When used properly it allowed the gasmask to be drawn quickly from the satchel.
  9. The metal angle joint which connected the hose to the rubber mouthpiece.
  10. The rubber mouthpiece through which the wearer inhaled, and held the mask in place.
  11. The wire nose-clamp with rubber padding that held the nostrils closed to ensure the user breathed only through the mouth.

During the period that CEM masks were manufactured numerous small changes were made to the mask. Some of these variations were the result of the different fabrication techniques employed by the vendors while others were official changes that were made to improve the mask’s durability and performance. Without listing all of the variations, when comparing CEM Gasmasks, one might notice differences in the eyepieces, angle joints, flutter valve guards, hoses, head harnesses, stitching versus glue, as well as the color of the filter canister.


Photo No. 51: Location of the key components on the American box respirator. Even though this diagram is of the CEM mask, the components for the RFK mask which followed were essentially the same.


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Photo No. 52: The best way to determine if a SBR is of British or U.S. manufacture is by the angle joint which connected the hose to the facepiece. The British angle joint, shown on the left consists of a pair of tubes fastened at a right angle. A U. S. angle joint (right) is larger in diameter and the angle of its bend is much less pronounced. Note the leather tab and brass stud used to shorten the sling of the British haversack and the hook and eye system used on the U.S. made satchel.


Photos courtesy of the John Adam-Graf collection


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Photo No. 54: Early British and American made eyepieces were made from either celluloid or a specially prepared glass known as “triplex”. They were fixed onto the facepiece in the following manner: from right to left: British SBR – twine, American SBR – twine, ATG – rolled aluminum.


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Photo No. 56: Eyepieces on the various late war respirators were fixed onto the facepiece in the following manner: from right to left: RFK Gasmask – same as the late war CEM respirator, AT Gasmask – square rather than rolled steel rim, KT, KTM & Victory Gasmasks – crimped steel eyepiece


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Photo No. 57: In the field, the discomfort that a SBR of any type caused led to fatigue which reduced a soldier’s efficiency, especially when the mask was worn for a long period of time. It also lowered the user’s morale, greatly impaired the user’s ability to communicate, compromised the user’s hearing, and narrowed the user’s field of vision to something like that shown in the recreation on display at the 1st Division museum. Right, profile view a CEM gasmask as worn by a Doughboy.


Doughboy photo courtesy of the John Adam-Graf collection


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Photo No. 58: The front cover and pages of a first pattern record card. The lower right hand image shows where the record card was typically tied onto the hose. Note that the last page of the four page booklet was comprised of an envelope which housed small adhesive plasters to mend the facepiece. In order for the plasters to be effective, they had to be applied to both sides, and completely cover the rip or tear. Repaired respirators were to be exchanged as soon as possible. SBRs that had fallen into water also had to be immediately exchanged.


Record card photos courtesy of the New Romantic collection


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Photo No. 60: The safety pin at the top of the photo has been used on this CEM gasmask to shorten the headdress strap. The inset shows how the safety pin was affixed to the center page of the record card. Also of interest is that this mask has been stamped size “No.4 WIDE”.


Photo courtesy of Advance Guard Militaria.com


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Photo No. 61: To overcome the tendency of the eyepieces to cloud or fog up from the condensation which built up inside the facepiece, each mask came with a tube of “Anti-Dimming Composition”. The composition was comprised of a soapy compound which created a slippery surface on the glass, off of which, it was claimed the droplets of moisture would slide.


The instructions for the compound stated that after each use, the eyepieces were to be wiped dry. Then a small amount of the composition was to be rubbed into the glass. After which the lens was to be polished with the cloth enclosed inside the tin. According to most Doughboys, the compound only resulted in further distorting their vision. At top is the longer tin in which the unmarked lead tube and the polishing cloth were housed.


Photo courtesy of the New Romantic collection


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Photo No. 62: The soldier on the left is wearing the ASBR whose first pattern gasmask satchel incorporated British style hardware made up of snap fasteners to secure the flap, and a leather tab and brass stud to shorten the sling. Every American made gasmask satchel that followed the ASBR and ATG satchels featured lift-the-dot fasteners to close the flap, and an American style sling, which used the hook and eye system to shorten the sling.


Photos courtesy of the John Adam-Graf collection


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Photo No. 64: Early 1917 dated gasmask satchel manufactured by Simmons with rectangular shaped body cord D-rings. All U.S. Army regulation gasmask satchels were divided into two compartments; the larger compartment for the mask, and the smaller for the filter canister. The filter canister rested on a small wire platform which raised it from the bottom of the satchel to ensure that air would always flow unimpeded into the filter.


Because front line combat troops had their gasmasks with them at all times, the satchels were used as an all purpose bag in which to carry frequently needed articles. After an unusually large number of 1st Division Doughboys became gas casualties, a gas officer took it upon himself to examine the contents of their gasmasks which had been discarded on the hospital’s salvage pile. His inspection resulted in the issue of a division general order in January of 1918 which partially read:


Absolutely nothing of any sort be carried in the gas mask satchel except the gas mask. In the satchels of salvaged masks are found everything from clothing to wrist watches. Most of these salvaged masks came from the hospitals and very likely the men were casualties from removing their mask because they could not breathe due to carrying things in the satchel which get under the canister and closes the [air inlet] valve. The practice of using the satchel as a carry all is discontinued.


Unknown Gas Officer, 1st Infantry Division, AEF

Photos courtesy of the Rusty Canteen collection


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Photo No. 68: This gasmask satchel with rivet reinforced corners has been stamped “USMC”, which would indicate that it was issued through Marine Corps supply channels. It has also been stamped with the Marine’s name and service number (R.D. Hubbell, 306058). This fact is very unusual because, the Army handled every aspect of the gasmask’s manufacture. While overseas, all gasmasks were issued to the various organizations in the AEF as needed by the Gas Service. Gasmasks so issued bore no unit specific markings or stamps. It’s possible that the Marine Corps had its own separate contract for the gasmask’s satchel and that the gasmasks, minus their satchels were provided to the Corps by the Army. While plausible, this theory has yet to be proven. The left hand image shows a pair of Marines wearing Army olive drab, one with a gasmask satchel of unknown origin, shortly after the capture of Belleau Wood in June of 1918.


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Photo No. 69: Both during and after the war the Doughboys inscribed all manner of information onto their gasmask satchels. Everything from names and serial numbers, to hometowns and the unit with which they served, to maps, diaries, and elaborate works of art. The purpose of the graffiti was to identify ownership, document their movement, and commemorate their service during the War to End All Wars. The soldier on the left, whose helmet bears the insignia of the 77th Division, has marked his gasmask haversack with his name, rank, and unit. Opposite is a selection gasmask haversacks decorated with AEF insignia. Clockwise from upper left: 3rd Infantry Division, 72nd Engineer Regiment, 84th Infantry Division, 34th Infantry Division, 78th Infantry Division, and 2nd Infantry Division.


Doughboy photo courtesy of the Portraits of War collection


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Photo No 70: Likely taken in 1919, these photographs show a pair of well graffitied gasmask satchels. The left hand image is of a member of ‘O’Ryan’s Roughnecks” or the 27th Division, while the right hand photo depicts a ‘Rail Splitter’ from the 84th Infantry Division.


Photos courtesy of the John Adam-Graf collection


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Photo No. 71: A history of Company A, 102nd Machine Gun Battalion, 26th Division claimed that that units SBR satchels were stenciled with the organizations insignia – a “standing bulldog”, as soon as the respirators were issued in June of 1918. The photo shows a squad of “Yankee” machine gunners wearing SRB satchels emblazoned with the bulldog insignia. The inset is a close up of the insignia as painted onto a gasmask satchel that was recently sold by Bay State Militaria.


Photos courtesy of Bay State Militaria


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U.S. Richardson, Flory & Kops Gasmask

Used by the AEF from March 1918 until the end of the war

Despite the success of the CEM Gasmask, complaints against that respirator could not be ignored. Stateside, American and British gasmask designers strived to improve on its design. Their efforts ultimately resulted in the Richardson, Flory and Kops Gasmask (RFK). Named after its chief designers, Ralph Richardson, E.L. Flory and Waldemar Kops, the RFK mask went into production in February of 1918 and by the time the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, over 3,000,000 units had been produced. Although the RFK was heralded as a “new” gasmask, it was in fact just an upgraded CEM gasmask. Cosmetically, the RFKs outward appearance differed very little from that of its predecessor. The most obvious being its wider facepiece and a new headdress configuration. Collectively, the RFKs technical improvements included:

  • An improved rubberized facepiece that was cut wider. This allowed the wearer to use the excess material to wipe condensation from the inside of the eyepieces without having to remove the mask.
  • A filter canister (the green type ‘J’ canister) that offered less breathing resistance.
  • A modified head harness strap arrangement that was more comfortable to wear.
  • A more efficient angle valve through which filtered air was inhaled and exhaled.

These modifications made the RFK mask easier to manufacture and slightly more comfortable to wear. Unfortunately, it still relied on the much maligned mouthpiece and nose-clip, both of which made the RFK nearly as unbearable to wear over a long period of time as the British SBR, and the American CEM Gasmasks.


Photo No. 72: The RFK Gasmask was worn alongside of the CEM Gasmask for the duration of the war. The three medical men on the left of this photo all appear to be wearing the CEM mask, while the soldiers to their right are wearing the new RFK respirator. Note how much roomier the RFKs facepiece actually is. The inset shows the new head harness configuration and the green ‘J’ filter canister which made breathing easier.


Background image courtesy of the John Adam-Graf collection

Inset courtesy of the New Romantic collection


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