Gas masks for the Great War… and other ways to remember Armistice Day

World War I Marines in France with gas masks, circa 1918 (United States Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections)

Ever wish that America had fewer patriotic national holidays commemorating war and more celebrating peace? We used to have Armistice Day, on the 11th day of the 11th month, to honor the anniversary of the pact that put an end to World War I. But after the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles the following year helped to set Germany on the path to runaway inflation, a new military buildup and the rise of Nazism, “Armistice” gradually became a dirty word, and the holiday was eventually renamed to honor surviving veterans as a corollary to Memorial Day.

This November, though, being the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice and the culmination of several years’ worth public events marking the centennial of the Great War, many communities are taking a second look at how that terrible conflict ended. Plenty of mid-Hudson venues have public events planned for this special Veterans’ Day; more on those later. First, let’s take a look at a particular Ulster County connection to World War I, and a longtime resident who applied his expertise as a medical engineer to the effort to save soldiers’ lives.

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Killing some nine million combatants and seven million civilians, the “war to end all wars” was arguably the most brutal in history. True, more people died in World War II – unless you add in the tens of millions worldwide who were wiped out by the Spanish flu pandemic spread by the returning troops in 1918. But the Great War was distinguished from previous conflicts by the miseries of trench warfare and the introduction of tanks, flamethrowers and chemical warfare. Though a variety of primitive gas masks had previously been invented to protect firefighters, miners and millworkers, soldiers in the first battles where chlorine gas was used had no protection more sophisticated than a wad of cotton tied over the mouth with gauze.

Before the US entered the war, the British came up with a gas mask called the small box respirator, which was rejected by troops because it involved an uncomfortable nose clip. They preferred to use the French invention, the M2, but that didn’t work with tear gas. To provide better protection when the US forces were equipped to join the fray in 2017, the American Expeditionary Force called on a major who had been serving in France as chief surgeon of a National Guard field hospital since 1914. While working as a surgeon at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and at Roosevelt Hospital prior to the war, major Karl Connell had developed an impressive track record of inventing equipment for the delivery of anesthesia, artificial respiration and oxygen therapy, and adapted some of those designs into an improved gas mask for wartime use.

His brainchild, called the Connell mask, relied on a sponge-rubber seal and positioned the filter canister behind the head, making it less of an obstruction to vision and communication than the earlier models. Inhaled air passed over the eye lenses to prevent fogging. About 1,000 Connell masks were manufactured for US infantrymen, but they were still deemed too uncomfortable. Further tinkering in collaboration with other designers yielded the Richardson-Flory-Kops mask, credited with saving thousands of lives in the second Battle of the Somme in 1918. Major Connell was later awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his work on these masks.

After the war, Connell went back to medical practice and patenting anesthesia equipment, which he had manufactured on Long Island. His country house from 1924 until shortly before his death in 1941 was an estate called Wintoon Lodge, located in the Ulster County town of Denning. Donna Steffens, director of the Time and the Valleys Museum, has been a champion of preserving Dr. Connell’s legacy, and he’ll likely be among those mentioned when the Catskill Readers’ Theatre performs The Great War: World War I at 2 p.m. on Veterans’ Day, Sunday, November 11 at the museum, located at 332 Main Street (Route 55) in Grahamsville Sullivan County. Created in collaboration with the Sullivan County Historical Society, The Great War is an original multimedia presentation of historical materials on Sullivan County soldiers who fought in World War I. Admission is free for museum members, $3 for non-members. For more info, call (845) 434-0209 or (845) 985-7700 or e-mail info@timeandthevalleysmuseum.org.

Here are a variety of other ways in our region to mark the centennial of the Armistice:

Make a Badge of Military Merit craft workshop
Saturday, Nov. 10
11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Free with museum admission
Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site
84 Liberty St., Newburgh
(845) 562-1195
https://bit.ly/2QkN0nK

Veterans’ Day Wreath-Laying/Commemoration of Centennial of the Armistice
Sunday, Nov. 11, 2 p.m.
Free/preregister
National Purple Heart Hall of Honor
374 Temple Hill Road (Route 300)
New Windsor, (845) 561-1765
www.thepurpleheart.com

Inaugural New Paltz Challenge River-to-Ridge 5K
Sunday, Nov. 11,
9 a.m.
River-to-Ridge Trail
41 Springtown Rd.
$30 (20% discount to military veterans)
(845) 255-0243
www.newpaltzchamber.org

“Kingston’s Part in World War I” slideshow
Sunday, Nov. 11
1 p.m.
Free
Friends of Historic Kingston
Museum Gallery
63 Main St.
Kingston
(845) 339-0720

Veterans’ Day Fee-Free Day
Sunday, Nov. 11
Home of FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt’s Val-Kill, Vanderbilt Mansion
Hyde Park
https://bit.ly/2pIrAW2

Sixth annual Veteran Arts Showcase Opening Reception
Friday, Nov. 16, 5:30 p.m.
Exhibits, presentations, performances
Saturday/Sunday, Nov.17-18, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Free
Henry A. Wallace Center
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum
Hyde Park
https://veteranartsshowcase.org

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