SSU 3 ambulance drivers wearing gas masks. RG1/002, AFS World War I Photographic Collection. This photograph cannot be reproduced outside the guidelines of United States Fair Use (17 U.S.C., Section 107) without advance permission from the AFS Archives.

The American Field Service (AFS) ambulance and camion drivers were non-combatants in World War I, since their primary tasks involved carrying wounded soldiers and munitions. Although they were not directly involved in the fighting, the AFS Drivers were still exposed to many of the dangers encountered by soldiers, including chemical weaponry such as tear or mustard gas. To protect against this form of chemical warfare, gas masks were often distributed to the AFS units. This event often served as a cause for commentary or a photograph, given the unusual appearance of the masks.

AFS ambulance driver Philip T. Cate described the masks, which were received by his unit on December 20th, 1915, in the diary he kept during his service abroad. He noted that they consisted of “a pair of goggles with a wire at the bottom, which is pinched to close the nose. Then the chemicals are tied on over the mouth so that the air when breathed in, is purified before getting to the mouth. They certainly make good disguises.”

Other drivers questioned the utility of the masks. According to AFS ambulance driver Edward Weeks in his memoir My Green Age (Little, Brown and Company: Boston, 1973), the gas masks were issued to his unit and they photographed each other looking like “creatures from Mars; the isinglass which shielded the eyes was dim to look through and our lieutenant warned us that the sterilizer was no protection against the new German gas which clung close to the ground with an odor like garlic or mustard.”