Esposito on Grayzel, 'The Age of the Gas Mask: How British Civilians Faced the Terror of Total War'

Susan R. Grayzel
James J. Esposito

Susan R. Grayzel. The Age of the Gas Mask: How British Civilians Faced the Terror of Total War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022. 288 pp. $34.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-49127-3; $34.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-108-81180-4. 

Reviewed by James J. Esposito (The Ohio State University) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (February, 2023) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version:

When we look at an old gas mask what do we see? Is it a grotesque melding of human and machine? Or is it simply a dusty curiosity, an object laden with different worries than our own? Susan Grayzel takes on this question in Age of the Gas Mask: How British Civilians Faced the Terrors of Total War. Grayzel explores the cultural history of the British gas mask and the government’s efforts to prepare the public for chemical warfare in World War II. The author traces the beginnings of civilian gas protection with the first use of poison gas by Germany in April 1915 and aerial bombing attacks with high explosives on Allied civilians (first by Zeppelin and later airplane). Aerial war made the home front both a direct military target and an invaluable asset for British state authorities to protect. Anxieties over the use of gas in a future conflict framed popular speculations about the “next war” and government plans in the 1920s and 1930s. Government authorities sought a version of the gas mask for use during a national emergency rather than just by soldiers on the battlefield.

Grayzel’s monograph has two main arguments. The first is that the gas mask is a symbol for the changed character of war. Total war methods such as the use of incendiaries and poison gas against civilians, including women and children, would be the new normal in mechanized warfare. Grayzel sees the British gas mask as the material symbol of the emerging “civil defense state,” an all-encompassing approach to national defense and precursor to Britain’s contemporary “national security state” (p. 2). The government’s goal was to protect the body politic behind a layer of rubber skin and purify any poison with charcoal filters. Working through the chemical establishment at Porton Down and the Air Raid Precautions Committee (ARP), the British state sought new scientific and technical data to manufacture masks on behalf of the general public.

The public was immediately skeptical of gas masks. Feminists and pacificists saw government gas mask policy as a hidden sign of belligerency, an unspoken admission that war was inevitable and gas would be used. Groups like the Women’s World Committee Against War and the Quakers thought gas masks were illegal and immoral objects laden with malign intent, but also a sign that the public was being lied to by the state. Many others simply thought of gas masks as a waste of money amid the strained economic conditions of the 1930s. Scientists too were skeptical of official plans to provide gas masks. Cambridge scientist and historian J. D. Bernal saw the government proposals as a “psychological mask” and thus useless for heavy gas bombardment (p. 75). Gas warfare also touched on a deep-rooted fear of suffocation and poisoning. To be gassed was to be reduced to the status of animals or insect pests. Popular media such as Cicely Hamilton’s dystopian novel Theodore Savage (1922) used the gas mask to evoke the futility of war through the depiction of ruined cities and poisoned soil, transforming the green and pleasant land into an infernal landscape from which there could be no escape.

Grayzel’s second argument looks at how the distribution of masks was directly related to the paradoxes of empire and imperial governance. Citizens and subjects were deeply unequal when it came to access to gas protection. Government officials refused to shield the people of the empire under hundreds of millions of rubber masks, callously remaking the gas mask into a whites-first form of exclusion. Those colonial subjects who served the imperial project (such as the Indian Army or colonial officials) were entitled to mask protection only after those in the Home Islands received theirs in 1939-40. Millions of Asian, African, and Caribbean subjects never received any kind of protective mask or training to use them. Colonial authorities in vulnerable places like Hong Kong and Singapore clamored for masks from the British government, but these inquiries largely fell on deaf ears. What few masks made their way to the empire were often too little too late. For instance, Singapore surrendered just days before the first masks were due to arrive in February 1942.

Ultimately, Grayzel shows that the British population at home very quickly grew tired of their respirators. Despite routine drills and a massive propaganda campaign, most people left their masks at home even during the Blitz in 1940. Mirroring our contemporary troubles with respiratory protection technology, bringing your gas mask out with you created peculiar (and quite paradoxical) cultural claims that you were “afraid” of gassing or “nervy” due to the threat of German aerial attack. On the other hand, bringing your mask showed one’s devotion to the war effort and willingness to fight on. The Blitz Spirit became intertwined with the cultural discourses of gas fear, very much the way wearing an N95 mask has become associated with hypochondria and the overstepping of the state on personal liberty during the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, this cultural unease with masking was not uniform or coherent. Women and children tended to follow official guidance, at least at first. Men, confident in their well-being or uneasy with being labeled “nervy,” were much more likely to leave their gas masks at home.

The expected German gas attacks never came. The reader comes away with a sense that the gas mask project was doomed from the start. Nevertheless, Hitler had many opportunities to use gas bombs on London, and one expects the first attack would have changed popular attitudes toward the gas mask quite quickly. In typically British fashion, the public pressed on. Many personalized their gas mask bags with fashionable embellishments or purchased expensive bags to customize their kit. Gas masks were also transformed into humorous symbols of the human condition. The “nicest looking warden in the ARP” was a popular joke of the time—the punchline being that everyone looks the same in a gas mask (p. 175).

Grayzel does a fantastic job of showing how the gas mask was part of cultural mobilization and remobilization during the conflict. The state regularly held gas demonstrations to build and maintain national readiness even when it no longer appeared necessary. Even as the bombing of the Blitz faded, the state sought to keep its population prepared for a gas attack. Drills such as the Brighton gas drill had the authorities release tear gas into crowded cinemas to promote vigilance. Well primed by local ARP officials, everyone in Brighton wore their masks dutifully as instructed by the state. Overall, these mock gas attacks drew increasing irritation from the public and threatened to turn civil defense into a spectacle. The government also tried additional sloganeering and advertisements to attain some sort of compliance, but those questioned by the Mass Observation social research organization never remembered any of the messages. The government ceased asking people to bring their gas masks with them in summer 1942 but advised them to keep them safe at home until the end of the war.

For historians of modern warfare, Grayzel’s main contribution is her analysis of gas weaponry used during the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935 and the role it played in shaping British cultural mentality. While the French had a scheme to distribute masks starting in 1922, the British lagged both in preparation and political will. The Italian army’s gas attacks in Africa were shocking enough to push the government into a crash program to produce over thirty million gas masks. The invasion of Ethiopia and the later bombing of Guernica by the German air force convinced the public that aerial bombing with poison gas could happen. Grayzel picks up on these important, but often ignored, global developments to make sense of an often bewildering series of bureaucratic decisions. Outrage was the galvanizing factor. The author’s analysis of the cultural impact of aerochemical warfare as outrage clarifies much in terms of the why and how of the ARP gas mask project.

Following the cultural focus of the text, the author notes the role of the press in shaping public opinion, shifting its general tone from incredulity and skepticism toward the government line. Newspapers published reports on the ARP including their training efforts, information on how to procure a mask, and guidance on how to manage emotions during an attack. Grayzel successfully weighs the media embrace of the gas mask project with reality on the ground, especially in her use of memoirs and letters. Young mothers and children are the focus here, allowing the reader to see the gas mask as an object of horror within domestic space. Mothers fit gas masks to their children and ceased to recognize the inhuman rubber faces looking back at them. Children put on gas masks to scare each other, reflecting a childlike sense of play as well as the bizarre presence of atmospheric terror in childhood.

Grayzel’s work also highlights the inequalities of technology and inclusion. For gas masks, one size simply did not fit all. Porton Down designed the ARP mask for a healthy, western European adult with no medical conditions or other “abnormal” features. Those who deviated from this, even in minor ways, had problems with gas masks. Asthmatics and those who wore glasses were more uncomfortable than most but could make do with what was available. Others, such as those suffering from lung diseases like tuberculosis, those who had tracheotomies, or even simply those who had a differently shaped head could not use the mass-produced model. Children also needed special smaller models to fit them. Infants could not wear gas masks at all, and it took considerable time and money to develop a gas hood with special bellows system to ventilate their enclosure. Of course, the colonized were outside this biopolitical framework and received little access to gas protection at all.

The text does suggest some additional questions left unanswered in the book. It would have been helpful to have more information about the German equivalent of the ARP gas mask. Did it work? What did the German public think about it? Given Britain’s wartime capability to use chemical and biological weapons as well as its emphasis on aerial bombing, one wonders if the average German civilian was equally skeptical of their gas masks or simply followed civil defense messaging under the Nazi regime. Nevertheless, the lack of German sources is a very minor criticism of an otherwise outstanding book.

Industrial modernity is Janus-faced. It generates great wealth and material abundance, and it promises to free human labor and replace it with the work of machines. It also holds the potential to destroy human life on a mass scale through the manufacture of explosives and chemical poisons. Gas masks are the counterpart to chemical weapons, symbols not of material affluence or technological achievement, but horrific reminders of the duality of human invention and so deeply laden with cultural meaning. Age of the Gas Mask shows the gas mask’s cultural meaning was never final, but rather its meanings shifted over time and were rarely in line with official government planning. While it may not have saved anyone from a chemical attack, the ARP gas mask had great symbolic value as an attempt to control fear and panic amidst the changing character of war. It sought to erect an artificial barrier between the British body politic and a threatening world. The civilian gas mask laid the foundation for Britain’s contemporary security state apparatus and perhaps reflects something of our anxiety about atmospheric control and our elusive mastery in engineering immunologically and climatologically healthy air. Try as we might, the gas mask shows that we cannot encapsulate the entire world. Rather, we should seek to live more balanced lives in the world that we have.

Citation: James J. Esposito. Review of Grayzel, Susan R., The Age of the Gas Mask: How British Civilians Faced the Terror of Total War. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. February, 2023. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Thank you very much for this interesting review.

With regard to the area of the development of gas masks in Germany it can be added that there are already publications on this, such as
Rossi, Egidio et al. (2021). Der Gaskrieg im Ersten Weltkrieg: Gasschutz und Gasmasken bei den Armeen im Deutschen Reich, in Österreich-Ungarn und Italien. Vienna.

The effect of the gas mask as a symbol and for depersonalizing a society in Germany is reflected, for example, in
Thiel, Franziska (2018). Die letzten Tage der Menschheit – Karl Kraus’ Weltkriegsdramatik. In: Klein, C., Deiters, FJ. (eds) Der Erste Weltkrieg in der Dramatik – deutsche und australische Perspektiven / The First World War in Drama – German and Australian Perspectives. Stuttgart.

For those interested in the subject of gas masks in Germany, I would add Peter Thompson's work.

Here is an early article:
Peter Thompson (2017) The chemical subject: phenomenology and German encounters with the gas mask in the World War I, History and Technology, 33:3, 249-271, DOI: 10.1080/07341512.2018.1449712

The book form of his 2021 University of Illinois dissertation is coming out as
The Gas Mask in Interwar Germany: Visions of Chemical Modernity (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming April 2023)

Hi Michael,

Thanks for sending these recommendations along. I wasn't previously aware of the Thiel reading. The text is available online via my library. I just read through it. It looks like will be extremely useful. The Rossi reading isn't available near me, but I ordered a copy from my local bookseller to receive it by mail.


Hi Kristen,

Yes! I highly recommend Peter Thompson's work as well. The Chemical Subject (2017) is a very well done article and I look forward to reading the book once it is released.