Photography

Ready for the Party 1941

First of all, apologies for the brief absence on the blog front.  I’ve been rather busy lately with the exception of an uncharacteristic migraine which waited until Otago’s regional holiday before ambushing me and rendering me useless, but I can’t complain, at least I’m not off to war like these guys…

Soldiers wearing gas-masks in the Western Desert, 1941Lemuel Lyes Collection

Soldiers wearing gas-masks in the Western Desert, 1941
Lemuel Lyes Collection

I came across this snapshot in a secondhand bookshop and fell in love with it.  It appeals to me for a number of reasons.  First of all, if any of my friends were sent off to war then this is exactly the kind of Facebook profile photo that I’d expect to see show up within 24 hours of their first gas mask drill – it screams “social media profile shot”.  Similarly, if Instagram was around in 1941 then I like to think that this would be the kind of image that would’ve been uploaded.  It is a photograph I can relate to.

It also reminds me of my first foray into collecting militaria.  At the age of about 14 I bought an original WW2 ‘Brodie’ helmet as seen in this photo.  I found it in a local antique shop and thought it incredible that my paper-run pay could purchase a genuine (not to mention wearable) antique from the Second World War.

A few months later in an army surplus store I found an even more appealing piece of military head-ware – a gas mask circa 1970’s/80’s.  Fortunately it was never called upon to protect its owner during times of war or apocalypse, but it proved its worth merely for its entertainment value at dress-up parties and on at least one occasion at the dinner table after a sibling engaged in a particularly offensive flatulence campaign directed at yours truly.  The gas mask was faulty and did little to improve the quality of the air but it was an extremely effective way to make a protest at the use of such an inhumane weapon.

In my opinion the sight of adults dressed up in full anti-gas kit in the middle of the desert is always going to be amusing.  If you enjoy this snapshot then I can recommend the movie Jarhead.  My favourite scenes in that movie combine the comic gold that is military desert camps and gas-masks.

The message on the back of the photo suggests that the photographer was also amused by the scene, unless “Ready for the Party” was meant as a euphemism for “Going to War” in which case it is a little bit depressing.

“Ready for the Party” 1941
Lemuel Lyes Collection

I like to think that there was humour behind this comment but even if it was a euphemism then there is at least solace in knowing that while the use of gas was feared by many it didn’t repeat the horrific role that it had played on the battlefields of the previous world war.

The two soldiers are likely members of the 2NZEF and the photograph was taken somewhere in the Western Desert in 1941.  It was a busy year in the Mediterranean; the New Zealanders saw action in Greece, Crete, Egypt and Libya.  Some time in-between all that fighting two soldiers dressed up in gas-masks and had their photo taken.  Seventy-three years on and even if it is a little wrong, I can’t help but be amused at the sight.  What do you reckon?

© Lemuel Lyes

4 replies »

  1. A seriously cool photo. Or should I say ‘hot’, I can imagine the sweat rolling off these guys. It’s a funny thing, but gas was the big fear of the Second World War – both in the battlefield and as a weapon against civilians, and both the Allies and Axis had gases that were way more lethal than the types deployed on the Western Front 25 years earlier. Yet they never used them in battle. A lot of the reason, I suspect, devolved from the fact that both the field commandeers of WWII, and the politicians who ordered the war – on both sides – had personal experience of the Western Front and did not want things going down that track again, at least not on the battlefield. It is, of course, a salutary demonstration of the Nazi mind-set that they did not hesitate to use the same weapons against defenceless and captive civilians in their own country. An appalling crime underscoring the fact that, for all the undesirability of war at any time, the western democracies really had little choice about fighting. The Nazis had to be stopped – as Churchill put it, lest the world be plunged into a new dark age.

    • I agree – it is a curious fact that gas was never used in the way that it had been in the First World War.

      I’ve always found it interesting that both sides drew that line despite the horrific use of other terrifying weapons both conventional and otherwise on large civilian populations. It seems bizarre that gas was considered too terrible to use yet the Germans had no hesitation to unleash the Luftwaffe on London, or launch rockets indiscriminately at civilian centres. Then on the Allied side they thought it completely appropriate to completely decimate cities such as Dresden and of course not forgetting the atomic bombs and the horrific impact that had on civilians.

      Yet through all those horrors gas was never used. A blessing for sure, I just find it fascinating that all parties managed to refrain from using it.

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