Tales from the WWI Crypt

Sarah E. Dunne, MLIS
Archivist & Librarian
Lang Education Center & Library Owls Head Transportation Museum

Several years ago, I was hired as the first professional librarian at a surprisingly large transportation museum in Mid Coast Maine. The museum, whose focus is pre-1940 vehicles, was founded in the early 1970s, the extensive library decades later. With my interest and experience in archives and the encouragement of trustees and our former curator, I’ve become the museum’s first trained archivist as well. Double Lone Arranger.

Many of you likely have been involved with the resurgence of interest in World War I due to the multiple recent centennials, whether American or European or both. One of our neighbors, the Knox Museum, recently hosted a World War One History Day, complete with reenactors. A great deal of our collection dates from that era, and they kindly asked us to collaborate with them. I began assembling portable, stable pieces from our extensive WWI ephemera collection, and our vehicle conservators supported the event by scheduling a visit from our 1913 Rolls-Royce that had been in Europe at the outset of the war, and a flyover by one of our WWI biplanes. One of the great things about working at an operating museum is that we actually run most of our collection, and frequently fly our biplanes. The 1913 Rolls? Fully roadworthy, registered and street legal.

We had a great variety of supporting materials to display, from books, magazines, and newspapers to sheet music, trench art, and aviators’ equipment and photo albums, but I used the occasion as an excuse to root around in remote storage. In a corner at the back of a dusty shelf (we all have those dusty mystery shelves left by predecessors, yes?) was a small cardboard box labeled only with “[donor name] WWI” and an accession number. Mildly curious, I opened it, expecting the quotidian pilot souvenirs. Instead, out comes this menacing-looking metal…thing. It was obviously some sort of mask; there were slotted eye guards that looked like a medieval version of those shutter sunglasses that were briefly, inexplicably popular in the Eighties and even more inexplicably revived by Kanye West. But these had chainmail hanging below the eye guards. From the markings, it was British-made. But what on earth was this creepy contraption?!?

I checked the catalog record, input by an unnamed volunteer almost a decade ago. It said only “Aviator’s metal face armament”. This simply didn’t make any sense; besides its restricted vision, a metal face mask could be positively dangerous in the often freezing temperatures of an early open-cockpit airplane.

Most of my coworkers and volunteers had the same reaction – “Hannibal Lecter?”. A couple of our military history-buff volunteers recognized what it was, but for fun we posted a shot of it on the Museum’s Facebook page, offering a small prize to the first commenter to correctly identify it. We got all sorts of guesses – early safety glasses, mask for dirt-racing motorcycles, WWI flight mask, coalman’s mask, welding mask, furnace mask…only a few posts got it right. It is a British World War One tank crew “splatter mask”, also called a “splinter mask”, “spall mask”, or “splash mask”.

British World War One tank crew “splatter mask.” Photo courtesy Owls Head Transportation Museum.

As in no major conflict before it, the Great War saw the rapid metamorphosis of traditional infantry and cavalry into heavily mechanized forces. Aeroplanes were first seen by most as of marginal use, good only for scouting and observation missions; only gradually did they become the fighters and bombers now familiar to us. Early tanks likewise were primitive vehicles, and their very use was opposed by many military leaders, especially those in the cavalry, who were right to see them as potential competition. But in the new trench warfare, especially when the crippling mud set in, conventional fighting methods failed and armies found themselves at a stalemate. Late 1916: enter the tank, whose caterpillar treads could take on the sludge and deep trenches of the battlefront that humans or horses couldn’t master. Initially the tanks were crude machines that did get bogged down easily in ditches and trenches, but the Allies – primarily the British and French – rapidly improved them to the point that they proved invaluable on the battlefield, and the Axis powers had to scramble to catch up. True, there were versions of armored vehicles dating back centuries, but the tank as we know it was a modern invention.

British World War One tank crew “splatter mask.” Photo courtesy Owls Head Transportation Museum.

The early tanks were primitive and miserable, and the driver was subject to the same suffocating conditions as the rest of the crew. If you’ve ever been stuck in a stifling Halloween costume, imagine how unbelievably worse it would be if you were part of an eight-man crew wearing heavy woolen uniforms, jammed into a cramped, sweltering metal box on wheels that was lurching through mud and trenches while under fire. Engine and gun noise; the air heavy with sweat, exhaust vapors (no barrier between engine and crew), and cordite fumes from the weapons; overheated rivets and spall (bits of the shoddy boiler plate metal from inside your own tank) popping out at you…and then the driver had to try to look outside to direct the crew without getting his face blown off. The earlier tanks had no raised turrets as we know them, so the crew were level with the treads. To see out, there were only hinged metal flaps.

British tank crossing trenches, from Collier’s Photographic History of The World’s War, 1918.

To counter the danger of shrapnel and bullets, many crews wore helmets, initially only leather but then metal, with splatter masks. The metal goggles above the chain mail were covered with leather back and front, and most provided some protection for the nose as well. They were not without their own drawbacks. In order to protect the wearer’s eyes, the slotted goggles significantly reduced vision. And in the superheated tanks, where temperatures could reach more than 120° Fahrenheit, it was a dilemma whether to suffer the added misery of a hot and sweaty mask or risk facial wounds and burns.

Front view of a British Tank, ca. 1916, from Photographic History of The World’s War, 1918.

Our mask had long since lost its leather covering and its fabric straps; for display purposes I fashioned substitutes out of period-correct bookbinding cloth, courtesy of a beat-up 1918 edition of Collier’s Photographic History of The World’s War. The book had only weeks before been given to us by a military aviation historian and long-time donor, who intended it to be taken apart (we have two other intact copies). I then rebound the book and it is now our handling copy for interactive displays.

British “Centipede”/”Mother”/”Big Willie” tank, ca. 1916–afterwards known at the Mark I Tank, from Photographic History of The World’s War, 1918.
World War One “Splatter Masks,” ca. 1916. Photo in the Public Domain.

Now that we know we have the mask, our videographer and I have been lobbying the museum’s Collections Committee to acquire a tank to go with it, but despite our faultless logic – what if we were invaded by Canada? Can they not see that it’s only a few hours’ drive away, and they could attack by sea from Nova Scotia in no time? – our pleas have thus far fallen on deaf ears.