This photograph shows a mother and child wearing gas masks while cooking on an open fire. Technical innovations during World War One – such as long-range artillery, or air strikes conducted by heavy bombers – meant that it was not just the front line, but civilian areas, too, that became military targets. Chemical weapons, first used in Poland in 1915 by the German army, in contravention of the Hague Agreement of 1907, were another feature of the war. 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 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.
After 21 March 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 entry of gas.
However, it is possible that this photograph was staged in order to function as propaganda, aiming to provoke strong emotions from the public, by showing innocent civilians affected by the fighting.