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Image showing gas mask from Second World War

Invalid's gas mask from the Second World War

In 1938, the British Government gave everyone, including babies, gas masks to protect them in case the Germans dropped poison gas bombs on Britain. The government had planned for tens of thousands of deaths in London alone. An advisor to the government - Liddell Hart - told the government to expect 250,000 deaths in the first week of the war alone.

The gas mask in the picture was designed for people who had breathing difficulties or other medical problems and was more like a helmet as it fitted over an adult's entire head. There were also special gas masks for babies - parents placed their baby inside the mask so that the head was inside the steel helmet and the baby could see through the visor. Then they wrapped the canvas part around the baby's body with the straps fastened under its bottom like a nappy, and its legs dangling free below. The canvas had a rubber coating to stop gas seeping through the material, and the straps were tied securely so that the mask was airtight. There was an asbestos filter on the side of the mask, and this absorbed poisonous gases. Attached to this was a rubber tube shaped like a concertina with a handle. This was pushed back and forth to pump air into the mask. With the baby inside the mask, an adult could start to use the hand pump. When the gas masks were made people didn’t realise that asbestos was a dangerous substance.

Health Visitors and Child Welfare Centres gave lessons on how to use the mask. Despite instruction courses, few parents were totally happy with putting their child in an airtight chamber. In fact there was some question over the safety of the baby’s gas mask. During demonstrations there were reports that babies fell asleep and became unnaturally still inside the masks! It is likely that the pump didn't push enough air into the mask and the babies came close to suffocating. Luckily, they were never put to the test in a real situation. Other than a few publicity photos these helmets were never needed, as there was never a gas bomb attack on Great Britain. As well as the infant gas mask, there was a gas-proof pram that could be used to protect babies from poisonous gas attacks.

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