WWI in Gasmasks Project

One of my little projects on the go is the painting of some WWI Strelets sets. In particular these are the sets featuring most of the primary combatants in gas masks.

In seemed timely to begin these sets for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s the centenary of the beginning of that terrible conflict. Another reason relates to my own Great Grandfather on my mother’s side Harry Bennett, who enlisted in the Leicestershire Regiment.

My great grandfather, Private Harry Bennett, Leicestershire Regt, 1914-18 war.
My great-grandfather, Private Harry Bennett, Leicestershire Regt, 1914-18 war.

He was a victim of gas attack in the war and, although he survived and was invalided home, it seems that both his physical and mental health were broken by his experiences and he tragically ended his days in an asylum. I’ve never forgotten that and maybe that’s part of the reason I’ve steered clear of 20th century conflicts in my work: they’re a little too close to home. Whichever type was used, to be gassed was a truly horrible experience.

Being the only set that I know of which depicts troops in gas masks, I think Strelets have done a good job, though I know their sculpting is not to everyone’s tastes. There’s something about the facelessness of the figures with their empty, glass goggles dehumanises them, turns them into nightmarish wraiths, staggering out of the poisoned air with blank faces. They become a perfect icon of the extreme form of mass-mobilised inhumanity which industrialised warfare had brought to the world.

The use of gas in WWI always makes me think of a Wilfred Owen poem;

“Dulce et Decorum est”

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

NOTES: Latin phrase is from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

So, yes, these are the first 20th century troops that I’ve ever painted! I’ve tackled the British and French infantry versions, hoping for German or other ones for Christmas and birthday (2 days later). I’ve never dealt with camouflage or drab clothing, never mind Lewis or Chauchat machine guns or gas masks. I’ve enjoyed painting them though and I like to think they look okay too. Hopefully, they may even feature on the mantlepiece this Christmas; my very own Christmas Truce vignette.

Strelets British Infantry in Gasmasks.
Strelets British Infantry in Gasmasks.
Strelets French Infantry in Gasmasks
Strelets French Infantry in Gasmasks

More photos of the Strelets figures to follow shortly.

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