Step off the streets of the 21st Century and into the Armed Forces History Museum’s replica of a WWI trench where the sights and sounds of the great battle rage around you. Inside you’ll discover a very rare WWI gas mask for a horse. While it may be difficult to fathom the need for a horse’s gas mask, remember, you have just taken a step back to an era when horses played a vital role in the military.
Introduction of Chemical Warfare
On April 22, 1915 during their attack on the French, Germany became the first military to utilize chemical warfare with a chlorine gas. From this point forward, chemical warfare became a widespread threat and gas masks became standard issue. Since horses were often used to transport supplies and ammunition to the trenches, gas masks were also designed to protect them. Soldiers would train with their horses using the gas masks in order to familiarize the animal with the apparatus and off-set potential problems once they stepped onto the fields.
The respirator used by the horses (as seen in the photo) included a flannelette bag with a corresponding canvas mouthpiece, which would be inserted into the horse’s mouth. An elastic band ensured the respirator would remain close to the horse’s face when in use.
Horses Important Role in WWI
At the beginning of WWI, all major military units had cavalry forces. Some military forces discontinued using horses shortly after the war, but others continued implementing them for logistical support since horses were far better at travelling over the various terrains. Horses were also used during WWI to carry messages and weapons and to assist with reconnaissance. Additional duties also included pulling the artillery and supply wagons.
Horses often contributed to the overall morale of the troops on the front-line, but unfortunately, they also contributed to the problem of disease and poor sanitation. Their value, however, cannot be disputed. As WWI progressed, horses became more difficult to replace, making their loss (in the eyes of many) more of a tactical concern than the loss of a soldier. A blockade by the Allies hindered the Central Powers attempts to replace their lost horses. This is considered one of the reasons they were defeated. By wars end, even the US Army, which had been well-supplied, found themselves short on horses.