Gas Masks, Face Masks

“Blackpool, 1941, Gas Drill” by Tom Keay https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/14646

As I drove to the supermarket this morning, I realised that seeing people wearing facemasks feels just so normal now, and I guess in 1941 it felt just as commonplace to see people carrying around their gasmasks. Whilst I won’t compare the current pandemic in the UK to the upheaval of a world war, I see similarities in the hidden, unpredictable threat faced and how society shifts into new, previously unthinkable, patterns of protective behaviour.

As I was thinking about the parallels between war and pandemic, I looked up the number of British civilian casulaties – 43,000 people killed between 1940 and 1941. Currently the number of Covid 19 related deaths in the UK is 41,429 – not far off – in 8 months.

In 1941 due to censorship, people did not hear about how many of their fellow citizens had died as a direct result of war. Albert would have participated in gas mask drills (he could even have been a model for this sketch) but his letters omit such details. There must have been many, many things he did, which he could not share with his family. And I am sure also, there were feelings and concerns he would have wanted to share, about his life, his purpose and the unpredictable world he was living in. As such candour was impossible, Albert details the munitae of his December days, in the dull lull between Christmas and New Year.

Monday Dec 29. 1941

Dear All, I hoped to write a long letter about a walk which I intended to take yesterday, but by the time I awoke it was 10 o’clock and the ‘bus left at 10.20 – so it was not much use hurrying to catch it. The weather was cold and rather grey looking, though no doubt I should have enjoyed myself had I gone. I was going by ‘bus to Garstang, and then to walk up to the hills and moors, using my new book of maps. I must try that walk before I leave here, though I fancy there is a church parade next week.

In the afternoon I borrowed the “Monopoly” board which belongs to the people here, and had a game lasting for the afternoon and the earlier part of the evening, then I wrote some letters. I heard some “bits” of music during the day, including Everyman’s music in which they played the 1st part of The Water Music, much to my delight.

This morning your letters, posted on Boxing Day, arrived, and I was pleased to hear that you had a very good time at Xmas, with the usual Christmas fare and games, & quite a large party to join in with them.

I did not know that Jean had been to the clinic during her exam period, nor did I know that she did so well for Drawing, she is quite good.

As you seem to have such quantities, I am not sending any cigarettes this week. I had 40, but sold them to the man here, as he is not always able to get them; I can do with the money too, as I have not yet got over Xmas! (financially that is). I wonder how you got on travelling on Monday. Several of the girls who have gone on Xmas leave were due back to-day, but none of them has turned up. The fellows who had weekend leave say that the trains from Euston were packed, & very many of them could not get on the night train, and have had to travel later in the day.

It has turned much colder this week, and tonight it is slightly foggy, with a moon shining, and a sharp frost in the offing. The roofs were quite white this morning, which was also rather cold. This is the first really cold weather we have had; it probably is getting ready for next week when I am supposed to have some guards to do!

“Squad Drill on the Prom, 1941” by Tom Keay https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/14652

I am sending along “English Downland” which I am sure you will all like. I have put some remarks in the margin, so I won’t say anything much about it here. The part I like best of all is the description of the road over ‘Old Winchester Hill’, which he does very well, and in addition it is one of my favourite roads. If you have a spare Sunday in the Spring when the violets are out, you really must go along the road from West Meon station to the top of the Hill. I think it is best to go up the road, as then you have to walk and can see the full beauty of it. You could continue along Tegdown to Hyden Wood and thence either home or to Havant.

To-day it is still cold and foggy, I expect it is something like that at home, judging by the weather report from Dover. I hope you are all well: my love to you both & Peter and Jean – Albert.

P.S. I saw a car (Morris 10 or 12) with a ‘COW’ registration number. I took my shoes to be mended today so for the next week I shall clump round in boots for evenings. We should have church parade on Sunday.

And that is the last letter of 1941. What will 1942 bring Albert Mabey? I don’t know much more than you, for I have made a point of not reading ahead, prior to posting these letters. Soon I’ll pull the bundle of letters out from the box and we can discover the next chapter together.

11 thoughts on “Gas Masks, Face Masks”

  1. Too bad Albert overslept the bus! He must have been a night owl. Being a morning person, I can’t imagine sleeping until 10:00, especially with so many people around. I do hope he’ll get an opportunity “to walk up to the hills and moors” with his new book of maps in the New Year.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I find it charming how Albert writes his letters like he would be chatting to somebody in the nearby room. The letters don’t have to entail big events or great news. They seem to be part of an ongoing conversation. It’s lovley! Also very interesting how he, just as all of us, simply gets on with his life best he can – inspite of war, gasmasks, uncertainty and all. For what can we do but to keep living for as long as we are lucky to be able to… ?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think he would have received letters from home at least twice a week, judging by how frequently he wrote. ‘Life goes on’ as the saying goes and we do have to make the best of every day, knowing how fortunate we are to be here. I’m so pleased that you are continuing to enjoy the letters.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, life goes on, no matter what, and most of the time it’s pretty small. The big stuff doesn’t happen that often and that’s also reassuring, I think. I do enjoy the letters very much – thank you for posting continously:)

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I think most people during the war, particularly any involved in the fighting, felt the need to keep things as normal as possible for their loved ones as they wouldn’t have wanted the effects of the alternative on their conscience.

    My dad kept a gas mask until many years after the war ended, I remember it from when I was a child in the early 1950s. It used to give me the creeps and I could never imagine anyone wearing it! He won’t have kept it out of nostalgia and I hadn’t thought about why he kept it until now, really, and I wonder if he kept it in case it all kicked off again. Very creepy thought that but, as you say, there are similarities to what’s happening now.

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