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Interpreting the Evidence

Soldiers Wearing Gas Masks

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:

    World War I

  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:

    New York State
    United States

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Soldiers Wearing Gas Masks, c. 1917 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
Photograph of soldiers wearing gas masks, World War I, c. 1917.
Historical Context
Gas warfare, first used by the Germans in 1915, involved attacking the enemy with large amounts of an asphyxiating gas. Gas attacks were somewhat limited by the unpredictability of favorable conditions. In order for a gas attack to be successful, a steady breeze of 5 miles per hour without rain had to be blowing toward the enemy. The gas had to be heavier than air and sprayed in the direction of enemy lines or fired in shells or bombs. If the wind was to strong the gas would be carried past the enemy. If the wind was not strong enough the gas may recede back on to the attackers. When successful, gas attacks could clear an entire trench and allow the attacking army to advance into enemy territory. However, a major risk of gas warfare was the possibility that clouds of the deadly substance could be carried by unexpected winds to local towns and kill innocent civilians.
Soldiers protected themselves from the deadly affects of these gases by wearing gas masks. The gas mask contained respirators that filtered the gas to provide breathable air for the soldiers. A siren sounded to alert soldiers of the launch of a gas attack. The gas cloud was usually effective for a 3 or 4 mile radius. Soldiers had to wait for an all-clear signal from their commanders before they were allowed to remove their gas masks. An additional problem caused by gas attacks was the death of rats and other animals that infested the trenches. Soldiers had to promptly remove all such animals after a gas attack to avoid the spread of diseases carried by these animals.
Essential Question
Why does war require the development of new technology?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and explain why this device was necessary.
Historical Challenges
How did gas warfare affect the local European communities during World War I? Compare the effects of modern war on the civilians of Afghanistan to the effects of gas warfare on the civilians of European communities during World War I.
Interdisciplinary Connections
English Language Arts: Write an editorial to your local newspapers either supporting or opposing a current war effort. The editorial must address the issue of the threat of civilian casualties and why you think they are justified by the war effort or a reason why the war is wrong.
Science: Not everyone exposed to the gases of World War I died. Research the long-term effects of exposure to gases used in warfare. What types of diseases are common in individuals exposed to these gases? What are the symptoms associated with these diseases?