Although chemical weapons of a sort had been used in ancient times, this had been rare and such weapons only became more attractive again as the major nations industrialised in the 19th century. Despite a weak attempt to ban them in 1899, all the major participants in the First World War used chemical weapons, and rapidly developed ever more dangerous substances with which to kill and disable. France first suffered gas attack in April 1915, and quickly responded with a very simple device for covering the mouth. As the gases developed, so too did the anti-gas equipment, and the soldier wearing a gas mask was to be one of the defining images of the war.
That first French gas mask was little more than a soaked pad held over the mouth, but better protection soon followed. The masks on these figures are hard to make out, but they are certainly wearing some of the earlier models of mask, the Tampon P, P1, P2, Tampon T, the MTN or TN and the M2. All the figures are wearing the Adrian helmet, which appeared by late 1915, and all have the rectangular tin for holding the mask, which appeared in 1916 along with the MTN, so the mask is likely to be either this or the M2. The latter was the first mask to include mouth piece and goggles in one, while the next model of mask, the MCG or ARS, is certainly not what is depicted here. This then tends to fix these men as suitable for 1916 in particular.
The mask, mask tin and helmet are the main items with which these figures can be dated, but the rest of the uniform and kit are also appropriate for this period. All wear the capote or overcoat, puttees and short boots which have been properly done here. They have the two ammunition pouches on the front of the waist belt but all are missing the third ammunition pouch at the back, and all are also missing the two-spouted water bottle that all soldiers had in reality. The men also carry a bayonet and haversack, but the latter item, like the gas mask canister, moves around the body a good deal, although photographs do show that this did happen. The men usually liked to have their gas mask case close at hand (i.e. at the front) in case of emergency, but since they are already wearing them here this is not an issue. Weaponry is mostly rifles, plus a couple of stick grenades. One man carries a Chauchat, an 'automatic rifle' which was intended to be carried into battle firing from the hip, as seems to be happening here. In fact this proved problematic, but would have been seen often enough to justify its inclusion here. The officer, who sensibly wears a coat like his men, displays considerably less sense in carrying a sword into battle, which immediately marks him out for special attention by the enemy. Although there are documented instances of this sort of bravado even as late as 1916, most officers were far more practical and often simply took a rifle into action.
The poses are fairly standard but all are quite reasonable. The man crawling forward in the bottom row particularly caught our attention, but the rest are acceptable if somewhat flat.
Having reviewed so many Strelets sets by now it is a challenge to know how to describe the quality of these figures except by saying that it is entirely typical of their range. Detail is there but chunky and oversized, and this applies particularly to the gas mask cases. The officer’s scabbard drags in the mud and would be even more of an encumbrance as a result, while the coats do not have the sort of folds to suggest their ample dimensions. The Chauchat is greatly simplified and a particularly poor model, especially as it has the bipod in line with the barrel, which is not possible with the real thing. It’s operator is holding it incorrectly, and indeed his left hand passes through the bipod in a splat of vague sculpting. On the plus side there is no flash, but these are not impressive figures.
Bayonets were routinely fixed before going into action, even though physical contact with the enemy was rare, so we felt most of these figures should have had their bayonet on show. The lack of other fundamentals - the third pouch and the water bottle - have lost this set an accuracy point, but it is not particularly strong in any of its features apart from the good quality of the mould. Adding a vague gas mask such as these to figures without one is not a particularly difficult task, and troops did not wear gas masks for extended periods of time, but these faceless individuals do capture something of the horror of this war.