As with the other major powers, the British response to the use of gas in World War I was initially hurried and very primitive. Early counter-measures were no more than cotton pads soaked in various chemicals (or sometimes even just water) and taped across the mouth. Things improved when hoods with breathing systems were developed, but the real breakthrough was achieved when the 'Large Box Respirator' was issued. This had a one-piece face mask and filtered the air through materials held in a separate haversack, connected to the mask by a pipe. It worked well, but was too bulky for many roles, so later in 1916 the ‘Small Box Respirator’ (SBR) was issued instead. An instant success, all personnel at the front had one by the spring of 1917, and over 13.5 million were ultimately made, lasting into World War II. This iconic device, so associated with both British and American troops, is what all the figures in this set from Strelets are wearing.
Apart from the SBR all these figures wear the other iconic item of the British army, the 'Brodie' helmet, another innovation of the mid-war period. In addition everyone is wearing the greatcoat, which is an unusual choice for figure sets. This has been properly done, with the single-breasted type for the troops and the double for the officer, although as it was not waterproof and often seemed to attract the mud it was increasingly replaced by goatskin coats or leather jerkins was the war went on. All the men correctly wear short boots and puttees, while the officer has either long boots or leggings, so as far as the uniform is concerned there are no inaccuracies to report.
The kit is a different story however. By late 1916 most frontline troops wore the 08 pattern webbing, and so do some of those here, although on many it is impossible to make out what webbing they have. However where it is visible, it is clear the sculptor has given each man six pouches on either side, and aligned them in neat columns, rather than the five they should have, and offset against each other. Worse still seven of the poses - more than half the total - are wearing a bandolier. Bandoliers were normal issue from 1903, but by 1916 they would have been fairly uncommon amongst infantry, so their heavy presence here is hard to explain. What is more all have pouches on the back, making them the 90-round mounted version rather than the 50-round infantry version. Naturally the SBR, correctly sitting on the chest as these are, severely restricted access to a bandolier, which is one more good reason why such an arrangement, while perhaps not unknown by this date, would have been very rare in the infantry and is therefore a very poor choice for this set.
Other kit is also sub-optimal. Although several have fixed bayonets no one has a bayonet scabbard, nor an entrenching tool or mess tin. Second wave troops might expect to carry a pack and any of various impedimenta, but again there is none of this here. Some even lack a canteen. Weaponry consists of a quite crude rendition of the standard rifle plus a Lewis gun. The officer wears a belt without braces, and carries what looks like a whip or cane – both equally useless in the face of the enemy but carried nonetheless. As in all armies, officers were told to not stand out from their men in appearance, but some still did so.
The sculpting is blocky and pretty poor, with thin items being too fat and some areas hard to make out at all. The prone figures have a lot of extra plastic round the head, and while flash is minimal these are not attractive models. The propensity to have legs and head heading to the side while the chest remains facing forward, thus twisting the human body beyond what it can or would want to do, is particularly exaggerated here by the gas masks, some of which have long hoses between haversack and face to compensate for the unnatural stance.
The poses are a fairly standard selection (the runner being especially flat), but convey nothing of the reality of crossing no-mans-land through a hail of machine gun and rifle fire while trying to dodge artillery shells. Under such circumstances men instinctively hunched up, but many of these poses have admirably straight backs and appear to have little concern for the situation in which they find themselves. Of course this is far from the first such set to do this, but it is particularly hard to imagine these figures moving forward on the battlefields of Flanders in 1917 and 1918.
One pose in particular justifies a whole paragraph all to itself. That is rarely a good thing, and so it is on this occasion. In our bottom row we find a man kneeling and holding a Lewis gun. Apart from the bipod being twisted in a way the real thing cannot mechanically do, the model is no worse than any of the rifles. The gunner is holding it very strangely, with his right hand on the stock above the trigger and his left holding the ammunition pan. The Lewis gun was light, but not that light, so how it is managing to stay horizontal without means of support we cannot say. Certainly the man cannot be firing it. While it was meant to be fired from the hip, and could even be fired from the shoulder, the Lewis was far better resting on the bipod (and the strap allowing mobile firing is missing here anyway). In this case the unsupported front-heavy gun would immediately fall to the floor, which is just as well as with his hand on the rotating ammo pan he would impair its movement, as would his clothing with it pressed to his body like this.
Going into battle with the SBR was uncomfortable, with fairly poor visibility, so not an option to take unless there was a real threat of gas. Nevertheless this threat was real enough on many occasions, and many man had the SBR to thank for avoiding an extremely unpleasant injury or death. It was a great piece of design, but this set is not nearly as impressive. With uninspiring sculpting, unconvincing poses and some very strange design decisions, it is well behind the best in the market today.