Exhibit of the Week: Leaflet issued to warn of enemy gas attacks

Chart of War Gases in the Scarborough Collections.Chart of War Gases in the Scarborough Collections.
Chart of War Gases in the Scarborough Collections.
To contemporary eyes, this week's exhibit may look like a prop from some cool, dystopian sci-fi movie.

It’s a tri-fold card featuring on its cover a stylised line drawing of a hand holding a rattle – the type seen regularly at one time at football matches.

In World War II, however, the rattle had a much more serious purpose. It was an Air Raid Precaution warden’s gas rattle, used to warn of incoming enemy gas attacks.

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To our privileged early 21st century society, it may seem extraordinary to contemplate the idea of our country being under the threat of gas attacks. But this ‘Chart of War Gases’ was published by the government just 74 years ago in 1942, so well within living memory for many of our older readers.

The risk of gas attack was seen as a very real one – gas had been used extensively in the Great War which had ended only 21 years before the start of World War II, although mainly in a military context rather than to disable civilians. Fortunately the predicted gas attacks never happened – possibly because of a fear on the part of the enemy that we might retaliate with even worse chemicals: a version of mutual assured destruction.

Our card gives instructions on how to put on a respirator, or gas mask, and also information on how to identify different types of poison gas. It divides them into five categories – tear, choking, blister, nose irritant and systemic – and informs us that while choking gases are ‘deadly’, tear and nose irritant are ‘harmless’.

Given that it then tells us that the effects of nose irritant gases are ‘burning and aching pain in nose, mouth and throat and later in the chest, accompanied by sneezing; in more severe cases, vomiting and mental depression may be caused’, it would seem that those definitions are very relative.

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Nose irritant gases also had a considerably more sinister purpose: “The symptoms caused by these gases may not appear for some minutes after exposure. Thus they may not be felt until after the respirator has been put on, causing a victim to think the respirator is defective and want to remove it. The respirator must not be removed until fresh air is reached, however, as other and more dangerous gases may be present at the same time as the nose irritants, which may be used to force people to discard their respirators.”

We’re told how to identify the various gases by smell, where possible. The three tear gases – CAP, KSK and BBC – smelled ‘aromatic, like floor polish’, of ‘pear drops’ and ‘penetrating bitter-sweet’. The infamous mustard gas, a blister chemical, was duplicitous: “Garlic, onions, horseradish or mustard; faint; some persons are unable to smell it.”

Lewisite, meanwhile, a more severe version of mustard gas, smelled (rather disturbingly) of ‘geraniums’.

There is also advice on how to give first aid to victims of the various gases, much of which seems to involve washing various body parts in warm salt water and administering copious amounts of hot sweet tea – very British.

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Those caring for someone unfortunate enough to have encountered a nose irritant gas were also given advice which seems typically stiff upper lip: “Because of the acute mental depression, victims should be carefully watched for some time.”

And there’s one little throwaway line in the section on choking gases that seems very much a fascinating sign of the times – of phosgene, a gas which can corrode metals and cause severe damage to the lungs while smelling innocently of musty hay, we are told that ‘a trace in the air makes smoking unpalatable’.

The Chart of War Gases is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust.

For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on [email protected] or 01723 384510.