All of my Strelets Austrian WWI infantrymen are now finished and based. I’ll present my handful of figures wearing gasmasks first and then reveal the other more numerous troops in a second post soon.
I’ve said it before, these troops in gasmasks present a nightmarish sight. The ‘dehumanisation’ of 20th century mass industrial warfare somehow becomes almost literal when the face of a soldier is replaced with such a mask. The expressionless, glassy eyes are very disturbing. Strelets are to be praised for having the vision to be the only manufacturer of 1/72 scale to produce these figures. I previously painted a handful of their British and French infantry in gasmasks just prior to the inception of this blog on WordPress way back in 2014.
The Austro-Hungarian army of WWI was increasingly reliant on Germany as the war progressed and in the case of supplying its troops with suitable gasmasks it came to rely mainly on German imports rather than their own creations. This imported gasmask would have been variations of the Gummimaske.
So I’ve painted my mask in a similar style to the example above. Strelets, in an apparent oversight, have not included any gasmask storage canisters on the figures, so we must assume that it is either not used and the mask simply stuffed into the haversack or is obscured by other accoutrements.
A very 2-dimensional figure below, almost like an old-fashioned ‘flat’ model soldier really. With a bit of paint, I think the fellow looks quite effective though.
Strelets, somewhat eccentrically, often like their officer figures to be fitted out in the full regalia due to the rank, even it seems in the midst of a Great War gas attack! The officer below is wearing a yellow sash and has drawn his sword. He is also aiming his far more practical revolver ahead through the gas cloud.
More regular visitors to my blog may notice that I have spent a little extra attention on my bases this time for these figures. Rather than just throw some loose grass scatter over a base, in a completely new approach I’ve created a mix of sand and rock and glued that to the base. Once dry, I applied a soil wash for shading and then added dry brushed layers of paint to highlight the texture of the ground. I’ve included just a few tufts of grass to leave areas of bare earth and rock. This is no doubt pretty basic stuff for modellers but is a ‘giant leap forward’ for Suburban Militarism! It takes a bit of extra time to do so whether I’ll be prepared to take a similar approach all the time is in doubt.
In 1916, the Austro-Hungarian army attacked the Italian troops at Monte San Michele deploying a mix of phosgene and chlorine gas. This was the first use of gas on the Italian Front and thousands of unprotected Italian soldiers died.
There were many ways to become a casualty in the First World War, none of them anything less than terrible, but even in the midst of the industrialised mass killing of that conflict, gas attacks seemed a particularly barbarous and cruel manner to harm the combatants, even to people of the time.
The use of such chemical weapons was actually banned under 1899 Hague Declaration, so it’s use was already illegal and therefore a war crime. Being difficult to deploy against the enemy in a targeted and effective way (wind direction could be crucial), and also being easily subject to counter-measures thanks to the development of the gasmask, its use thankfully has largely died out in subsequent conflicts although, as in the recent Syrian allegations, the threat of this dreadful weapon sadly persists even today.
Gas and my Great-Grandfather: some final words
For years, I had always been told that my great-grandfather had been a victim of a gas attack in the First World War. This, I had been informed, was the reason his mind had been affected to such an extent that after military discharge he was apprehended chasing his family down a street with an axe. Harry Bennett was incarcerated in an asylum where he died only a few years later seemingly in poor physical as well as mental health. I offered a few words about this in a very early blog post back in November 2014.
A soldier in the Leicestershire Regiment, it was whilst he was serving in France that he had written to his wife to suggest that his latest child (my grandmother) should be named Francis, it being a reference to the country where he had found himself while separated at her birth. Actually, at my nan’s funeral a few years ago (she was 98!), it was reported that he rather less romantically suggested she be named “one-too-many” before then proffering Francis! My brother carries the masculine version of that name, and now my own daughter does too, in her middle name.
More recently, some information came my way from my mother regarding his service record. It made no mention of gas poisoning but instead made some references to an injury received in battle, from which he’d recovered, and also a persistent foot problem (“trench foot”?) which resulted in discharge. It now occurs to me that, at a time when post-traumatic stress was not understood – much less accepted – the ‘mental effect of gas poisoning’ story might have been a way in which his shattered mental health could be understood and accepted within his family and community. Traditional notions of bravery and cowardice in war made severe psychiatric breakdowns caused by modern warfare appear to be signs of weakness or moral failing. Being employed by a mental health NHS Trust, perhaps I of all people in my family am in a better position to offer a far more compassionate understanding of my poor grandfather’s condition, a century on from his breakdown.