Black Veil respirator : British Army

Unit British Army
Accession Number REL31825.002
Collection type Heraldry
Object type Personal Equipment
Physical description Chemicals, Cotton waste, Veiling
Location Main Bld: First World War Gallery: Western Front 1916: Weaponry
Maker Unknown
Place made United Kingdom
Date made c 1915
Conflict First World War, 1914-1918

British Army 'Black Veil' respirator. The mask is made from a 1 metre length of 280 mm wide black veiling. The veiling is folded to form a 100 mm wide sleeve, the centre of which is sewn to form a 200 mm wide pocket containing a thick pad of cotton waste. This central pocket is secured at the rear by a single corroded steel pin.

History / Summary

On the evening of 22 April 1915, near Ypres, in Belgium, the first gas attack on the Western Front was launched by German troops. This attack, using chlorine gas, caught the Allies completely unprepared, and casualties among the French colonial and Canadian troops who bore the brunt were heavy. British reaction was swift, and thousands of home-made respirators comprising cotton wool or lint pads wrapped in muslin or flannelette were issued to the troops by 1 May. Unfortunately, these 'pad' masks were almost completely useless, as they provided no protection when dry, and formed a completely airtight mass over the wearer's nose and mouth if soaked in an absorbent solution as recommended. Research showed that a loosely woven material would provide better absorption, while still enabling the wearer to breathe, so a mask of cotton waste was selected. A long piece of black cotton veiling was folded upon itself to form a pocket holding the waste in place, and the ends were simply tied around the wearer's head. By 20 May, virtually all British troops had been issued with a 'Black Veil' mask, which was soaked in a solution of sodium hyposulphate, sodium carbonate, glycerine and water. This solution retained sufficient moisture so that the did not require any further dipping before use, provided that it was stored in its purpose-built waterproof satchel. An advantage of the mask was that a fold of veiling could be drawn up to cover the eyes, providing some protection against lachrymatory ('tear') gasses. The Black Veil would provide about five minutes protection against a normal concentration of chlorine, and was suitable as a stopgap defence, but the need for a more reliable respirator was clear. By early July, most troops had been issued with the new 'Hypo' helmet, relegating the Black Veil to the role of emergency backup. Australian troops on Gallipoli were issued with Black Veils to protect against the possibility of Turkish gas attack, but they were not required.