A gas mask for a horse

About the object

© York Museums Trust
© York Museums Trust

Horse gas mask design

The gas mask is a fabric cylinder designed to be drawn up and over the horse’s nose and mouth, like a nose bag. The open end has leather straps which were used to fit the mask on the horse’s head and metal fittings that were attached to the horse’s bridle. The mask does not have a canister attached to filter out the gas. As with early gas masks used by the soldiers, it is likely that the fabric was soaked in a chemical such as phenol or sodium hyposulphite to neutralise the gas. Horses were less vulnerable than humans to the effects of gas. Gas masks issued to soldiers protected the eyes as well as the nose and mouth as some gases could cause blindness as well as pneumonia.

The provenance of this gas mask is unknown, but it is thought to be a German model, collected by a British soldier perhaps as a souvenir. Both the Germans and the British used gas as a weapon during the First World War.

Changing technology

The horse gas mask reflects some of the technological changes that occurred during the First World War. It was the changing nature of warfare that rendered traditional cavalry useless on the Western Front. Trenches, shell-holes, barbed wire and machine guns proved deadly to both horses and riders and cavalry charges became ineffective. In 1917, tanks, which could crush barbed wire and deflect machine gun fire, were introduced. Cavalry was deployed alongside tanks at first, but tanks eventually took over the role of shock combat.

Poison gas was also a new weapon at this time. The first significant use of chlorine gas by the Germans was at Ypres in April 1915 and it was first used by the British at Loos in September 1915.

Use of horses during the First World War

Germany stopped using cavalry as fighting units in 1917, but although Britain continued to use cavalry throughout the war, they had little success on the Western Front. Soldiers in cavalry regiments fought largely on foot, or, later, in tanks. Despite this, horses remained valuable to the military throughout the war. They were used for communication, carrying messengers, and for transport. During the battle of the Somme, so-called fire brigades of horses were used to transport troops rapidly to vulnerable parts of British front line. Able to travel over rough ground and through deep mud, horses were more useful for draught work than motor vehicles were. Horses were used to pull ambulances, field kitchens, ordnance and supply wagons. They also drew artillery; six to twelve horses were needed to pull each field gun.

To supply the military, Britain requisitioned civilian horses and imported horses from abroad. The German military had state-sponsored stud farms and during the war seized horses from the territories they occupied. Towards the end of the war, Britain and her allies were able to prevent Germany from importing more horses, hampering their ability to transport supplies and artillery, which contributed to Germany’s defeat.

Although horses, as well as donkeys and mules, were crucial for draught work and communication, they were not the only animals that went to war. Dogs and pigeons were used for pest control and sending messages. More than 16 million animals served in the First World War. Although they increased the risk of diseases spreading, animals raised morale and were considered important for the companionship they provided for troops. Some animals, including monkeys, were kept purely as mascots. The fact that gas masks were made for animals demonstrates the vital role they continued to play in the war effort, both practically and for the well-being of the troops.

More information

Horse gas mask
Information about the horse gas mask and associated objects at York Castle Museum.

Gas warfare
An overview with objects, photographs and paintings from the Imperial War Museum.

Warhorse: Fact and Fiction
National Army Museum’s Warhorse: Fact and Fiction microsite includes detailed information about the use of horses during the First World War, with objects, photographs and video clips.

Education materials
Education materials developed for the stage production of War Horse includes information about the use of horses during the First World War.

First World War Centenary Project
The First World War Centenary Project’s research resources list websites and organisations that provide further information about the First World War.

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A gas mask for a horse