DIY facemasks and the domestication of personal protection in the First World War


Dr Michael Reeve, Bishop Grosseteste University/Leeds Beckett University

As a historian of wartime resilience, I have found it difficult not to draw parallels between aspects of the current public health crisis and elements of my own research into public safety and early forms of civil defence during the First World War. Though such parallels between a public health emergency and armed conflict are very often ill-fitting and inappropriate – as Henry Irving has demonstrated in posts for the SHS Research Exchange and History & Policy – the ongoing debate about shortages of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) among healthcare workers and in society more generally has precedent in the history of early twentieth century conflict.

Government guidance – for England and Scotland, at least – now advises people to wear face coverings on public transport and other enclosed spaces where distancing is difficult. Newspapers had already published instructions for home-made face-coverings, while some people have taken to producing masks at home to donate to those in need, including healthcare and other key workers who are suffering severe shortages. This has been described by some as akin to the ‘war effort’ embodied in the First and Second World Wars, where ordinary people, most often women, provided knitted clothing and other comforts to soldiers who were suffered shortfalls at the front.

North Riding Lieutenancy pamphlet, February 1918. Source: North Yorkshire County Record Office, Z.1028.

Today’s DIY movement also reminds me of actions taken by some local authorities during the First World War to prepare civilians for aerial and naval bombardment. From late 1914, naval attacks affected the east coast of Britain, followed by Zeppelin airships. By 1917, aeroplanes were in the ascendancy, affecting London worst of all. Much of the pre-emptive activity devised by central and local government was underpinned by fears of invasion and, from early 1915, of poison gas attacks against civilians on home soil. This followed the use of lethal chlorine gas on the Western Front in April 1915. As such, the threat was real and keenly felt by civilian communities at home.

In February 1918, the North Riding Lieutenancy, responsible for the emergency response in Whitby and Scarborough – two seaside towns attacked by German battlecruisers in December 1914 – encouraged civilians to make their own protective masks at home. These were to take the form of a ‘piece of cotton waste, enclosed in gauze, to tie around the head and saturated in a strong solution of washing soda’.

It is impossible to measure local public engagement with these simple instructions, though it is likely that some people took the advice seriously, given the heightened sense of threat. Though it would certainly have been ineffective against gas bombs, the activity of making and wearing it could have provided a semblance of psychological protection. It could encourage the belief that something could be done to guard against this threat to life. Medical experts today have made similar points about the anti-viral face mask. Some have doubted its effectiveness in preventing the spread of coronavirus, while pointing out that the production of home-made masks can provide a useful task at a time of crisis. It can also be seen as a way for citizens to boost individual confidence when leaving their quarantined homes to exercise or buy groceries.

Earlier in the war, simple respirators were developed with gas attack in mind. In June 1915, the National Fire Brigades’ Union recommended a similar mask to the one recommended in Scarborough and Whitby, this time with the addition of hydrosulphate of soda and glycerine, which acted as neutralising agents. Indeed, as Susan Grayzel has written, this kind of mask was the main form of anti-gas protection for British forces until the introduction of the small box respirator in the summer of 1916.

For emergency planners in Hull, a city affected by Zeppelin air raids during 1915-18, the most urgent use for masks and respirators was by key workers, in this case the local fire brigade. The chief constable, George Morley, wrote to the Home Office in November 1917, asking if masks could be made available to Hull’s fire fighters. A.L. Dixon, the civil servant responsible for ‘war measures’ at the Home Office, could not assuage Morley’s concerns:

So far, poison has never been used in aircraft attacks in this country. I suppose the use of poison is not impossible but there seems a good deal to be said for not diverting large numbers of masks from the front where they are so much needed while there is no immediate occasion for their use here.

Troops of the 2nd Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders wearing cotton-waste pad respirators, 1915. Source: IWM (Non-commercial Licence).

In this case, even the most important emergency workers on the home front could not take precedence over soldiers fighting in the trenches, who were at the very apex of the wartime hierarchy of sacrifice. Political decisions regarding the likelihood of attack affected the degree to which protective measures for civilians were prioritised. In the current crisis, shortages of vital medical equipment and supplies, notably ventilators and facemasks, have forced healthcare workers to make choices that are fundamentally at odds with their values as professional caregivers: who is ‘worthy’ of care when there is not enough equipment or supplies to go around?

Though the early-twentieth century expectation of poison gas attacks on civilians does not directly correlate with a viral pandemic, we can see that a lack of preparedness in any crisis can lead to shortfalls in supplies vital to safeguarding life. Though gas bombs were thankfully never dropped on British towns and cities, we can still take an important lesson from this historical snapshot. Recent reporting by the Sunday Times has revealed that decisions made by politicians prior to the coronavirus lockdown not to shore up supplies, based on perceptions of a low risk to the public, have had real consequences in terms of the spread of the virus and the rate of death. The prospect of a hierarchy of sacrifice, akin to that seen in wartime and reflected in the decisions of politicians and civil servants, has unfortunately returned to public debate.

Calls for ordinary people to make their own protective equipment domesticates the response to crisis, relying upon the resilience of communities and a popular willingness to change individual and collective behaviours, as well as provide forms of mutual aid. After all, just as falling bombs forced Britons to shelter in their basements during 1914-18, the home is now where we all shelter from the ravages of an unpredictable pandemic.


About the author: Michael Reeve is a visiting tutor in history at Bishop Grosseteste University and an academic skills tutor at Leeds Beckett University. He is a member of the relaunched History Lab Plus committee for early career researchers at the Institute of Historical Research. His PhD thesis, completed at the University of Hull in 2019, explored government and civilian responses to bombardment in coastal areas of England during the First World War.

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