“Simply a symbol of national solidarity, the first step towards wearing a uniform.” Orwell on civilians and gas masks (2020)

by Federico Soldani – 11th Oct 2020


On the 25th of June 1940 World War II was ongoing.

Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, wrote in his diaries a comment about civilians carrying gas masks during the war. There was fear that National Socialist Germany air raids could make use of lethal gas (some photos below, more here).

Practice evacuation of a school in Kingston, Greater London, after a canister of tear gas was discharged on June 9, 1941. (Parker/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

During the following year Orwell started working for the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) as Talks Producer and broadcaster, Eastern Service propaganda for the Indian subcontinent, and worked there until 1943. At the time he talked about “two wasted years” in a letter to Philip Rahv on December 9th.

George Orwell, photographed at a BBC microphone in 1943

His wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy, a child psychologist (Master of Arts in Educational Psychology at UCL, University College London), was already working at the time for the Censorship Department, depending on the source either for the Ministry of Information (MoI) or the War Office in Whitehall, London (Orwell confirms this second option in a letter to Leonard Moore dated 6 October 1939; Diaries, ed. Peter Davison 2009).

Here is the excerpt from Orwell’s diaries in which he reflected on the actual usefulness of the gas masks vs. their social, national and symbolic meaning, as well as on how effective the war news were on the civilian population.


George Orwell’s war diaries, 25.6.40 (emphasis added)

I saw in one of yesterdays’ papers that gas masks are being issued in America, though people have to pay for them. Gas masks are probably useless to the civilian population in England and almost certainly so in America. The issue of them is simply a symbol of national solidarity, the first step towards wearing a uniform.

As soon as war started, the carrying or not carrying of a gas mask assumed social and political implications.

South coast of England, circa 1940. (General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

In the first few days people like myself who refused to carry one were stared at and it was generally assumed that the non-carriers were “left.”

Then the habit wore off, and the assumption was that a person who carried a gas mask was of the ultra-cautious type, the suburban rate-payer type. With the bad news the habit has revived and I should think 20 per cent now carry them. But you are still a little stared at if you carry one without being in uniform.

Until the big raids have happened and it is grasped that the Germans don’t, in fact, use gas, the extent to which masks are carried will probably be a pretty good index of the impression the war news is making on the public.

A gas exercise for civilians, using tear gas, Kingston-On-Thames in 1941. (Keystone/Getty Images)
World War II gas drill in Southend on March 29, 1941. (Eric Harlow/Keystone/Getty Images)

Last Updated on October 21, 2020 by Federico Soldani

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