A mother and child wear their gas masks while cooking on an open fire. It was not just the front line, but civilian areas, too, that became military targets. This was due to technical innovations such as long-range artillery, or air strikes conducted by heavy bombers. Chemical weapons, first used in Poland in 1915 by the German army, in contravention of the Hague Agreement of 1907, were another feature of World War One. They became a symbol of the dehumanisation of the conflict and its all-encompassing nature.
By 1918, gas warfare had become sophisticated, using a range of gas types delivered with shells, mortar bombs and grenades. Being delivered mostly by artillery, this meant there was risk of civilians being swept up in the attack. The masks that in this photograph are British issue, but these had become obsolete by 1916: they are Pheno-hexamine gas helmets and were replaced by the Small Box Respirator. In March-April 1918, the Germans broke through the Allied lines during the Kaiserschlacht, the Kaiser's Battle or Spring Offensive. The advance was rapid and led to the issue of the famous 'backs to the Wall' order by Sir Douglas Haig. It is conceivable that during this advance, civilians were put in the danger zone, and that obsolete gas masks, such as the ones seen here, could have been issued to them. To be effective, the masks would have to have been tucked into a tightly buttoned jacket, to prevent ingress of gas.
However, it is possible that this photograph was staged in order to function as propaganda, aiming to provoke strong emotions by showing civilians being affected by the fighting.
Bibliothèque nationale de France
Mère et enfant munis d’un masque à gaz
Agence de presse Rol. Avril 1918.
En violation de la convention de La Haye signée en 1907, l’Allemagne fut la première à lancer une attaque chimique à grande échelle sur le front de l’Est le 31 janvier 1915. Au cours du conflit, les principaux belligérants développèrent ce type d’armement qui devint un des symboles de la déshumanisation du conflit et de son caractère total. Dans les zones urbaines proches du front, les civils étaient également susceptibles d’être exposés aux effets des gaz toxiques.