In 1940, British Pathe issued a newsreel titled “Do You Carry Your Gas Mask?” In it, an unidentified employee from the Ministry of Home Security gently lectures an audience on the importance of carrying and wearing, gas masks. “Some of us have been inclined to forget about our gas masks,” he scolds, while jaunty music plays in the background. “You all have a gas mask, and you ought to carry it in order to practice wearing it.”

The vast majority of people watching this newsreel in Britain at the time would have had a gas mask. In 1938, before the war had begun in Europe, the British government issued 35 million “General Civilian Respirators.” It had been 20 years since the end of World War I, when chlorine gas and later mustard gas—had first been used.

The estimates of total casualties from this form of chemical warfare are staggering: 88,000 dead and 1,200,000 injured. With war once again on the horizon, Britain and continental Europe began taking early precautions. Gas masks play a major part in protecting us from all the biological and chemical gasoline. You can buy a family gas mask kit on for you and your family. 

People were instructed not only to carry their gas masks but also to practice wearing them. “Put it on for 10–15 minutes, one day a week,” says the British Pathé announcer. “It may be a little irritating at first, but you’ll soon get used to it.” The film then cuts to a room of typists.

The fear of potential gas attacks wasn’t limited to Britain. In Germany, France, and Italy, masks were available, if not as widely distributed. In the Soviet Union—which had suffered the majority of gas-related casualties in the previous war—no more than 10 per cent of the population had one.