What happened if a coronavirus pandemic happened 100 years ago?

What happened if a coronavirus pandemic happened 100 years ago?

As you already know, now the world is on the verge of a new trial called the Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19). The pandemic began with the discovery at the end of December 2019 in Wuhan, Hubei province, central China, the first cases of pneumonia of unknown origin in local residents associated with the local market of animals and seafood Huanan. On December 31, 2019, Chinese authorities informed the World Health Organization (WHO) of an outbreak of unknown pneumonia. By April 17, 2020, more than 2,000,000 people in the world became infected with the new virus  and more than 120,000 people died from it.

At the moment, many countries have taken unprecedented measures, closed borders, discontinued cars and flights between cities, countries, continents. Closed schools and shops, universities and stadiums, canceled the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. All health workers heroically fight the virus in equipment that can protect them. But, we thought, what would happen to our planet if all these events happened, say 100 years ago? how would our ancestors cope with this and what means of protection would be available to them?

Coronavirus pandemic 100 years ago

Since 100 years ago there was less movement of people on planet Earth (working trips and tourist purposes), the spread of the virus would have been much slower. In the time of the trench battles of the First World War (1914-1918), how could the German, British, French and Russian Tsarist Army Soldiers protect themselves?


The first German military gas mask was a cotton pad soaked in sodium hyposulfite solution. Already on the third day after the gas-balloon attack near Ipr, thousands of French and British women sewed such “gas masks”. But at the front, it turned out that it was not possible to use them. The soldier was forced to press the “gas mask” with his hand to his nose, which prevented him from using weapons during an enemy chemical attack. In all the warring armies, a turbulent, but short-term period of creating “nasal bandages” began: the same tampons, but with strings on the back of the head.

The simplest way of thinking when creating wet gas masks was to increase the size and thickness of the “tampon” itself, and create on its basis a protective hood covering the fighter’s head. The French and British followed this path, producing millions of copies of the construction of useless gas masks throughout 1915 and, in part, 1916. That is how the first British mask appeared, known as the “black veil respirator”. Would such a gas mask option help German soldiers not get infected with the virus? It is doubtful.

First German military gas mask, spring 1915. Photo courtesy of American historian Thomas Wictor

First German military gas mask, spring 1915. Photo courtesy of American historian Thomas Wictor

Later versions of German gas masks made on the basis of conclusions and experience in operating the first gas masks.


German gas masks of the first world war

German gas masks of the first world war. Drawing from the book by J. Simon, R. Hook (2007)

1. Wet German mask 1915 (August-September). It covered the soldier’s mouth and nose, had a metal nose clip and a special tape that the soldier wrapped around his neck for more tight fixation of the wet mask. The kit included glasses and a glass bottle with hyposulfite solution. There was an inscription on it: “Protective saline solution for wetting a respirator.”
2. Respirator for the dog. Impregnation included potassium carbonate (potash) and hexamine (urotropin).
3. German horse gas mask. It was made of those materials and had the same impregnation as a dog respirator.
4. Boxes for pigeons. Respiratory cartridges used at the front were screwed into them: sample 11/11 or sample 11-C-11.
5. Mask for the wounded in the head. Entered the front in 1918.

United Kingdom

The impetus for the developers of British gas masks was the testimony of a Canadian soldier who, during a gas attack, allegedly saw Germans with “bags” on their heads. This is how the British “Hypo Helmet” (hyposulfite) appeared, giving some protection against chlorine, but “transparent” for phosgene.

Read: Full box of rare bayonets. Amazing treasures at the end of 2019!

These observations of the Canadian soldier helped to develop the “Black Veil Respirator” (“black veil”), in the summer of 1915. It was a square cotton wool compress sewn into black muslin covering the mouth and nose. The compress was tightly attached to the face with a transverse bandage tied at the back of the head. At the same time, the upper edge of the veil could serve as protection for the eyes. Such a gas mask adequately protected against small concentrations of chlorine created by gas inlets, but it did not fit snugly on the soldier’s face and quickly torn to shreds at the most inopportune moment (According to J. Simon, R. Hook (2007)). Could it protect against coronavirus? 50/50!

The first British gas mask

The first British gas mask. J. Simon, R. Hook (2007)


Zelinsky’s gas mask – Kummant is the first gas mask in the world with the ability to absorb a wide range of chemical warfare agents, developed in 1915 by the Russian chemical scientist Nikolai Dmitrievich Zelinsky and the technologist of the Triangle factory Kummant.

Later, the Zelinsky-Kummant gas mask model was improved by Avalov and put into mass production (about 1 million copies were ordered for the army). After the beginning of the use of this model of gas mask by units of the Russian Imperial Army that participated in the First World War (1914-1918), human losses from enemy gases fell sharply.

Russian soldier in a gas mask of Zelinsky-Kummant of the Moscow sample, January 1916. Photo courtesy of American historian Thomas Wictor

Russian soldier in a gas mask of Zelinsky-Kummant of the Moscow sample, January 1916. Photo courtesy of American historian Thomas Wictor

Due to the use of new active substances in this mask, this mask was in many ways ahead of the masks of the Germans and the British. It would be 90% able to protect against coronavirus.

Another alternative was the Prokofiev mask created in the spring of 1915.

Prokofiev’s mask was made of 30 layers saturated with antigas liquid (water, glycerin, potash, hyposulfite and urotropin) and had the shape of a stigma with hermetically inserted glasses in a metal frame. The mask absorbed up to 1 g of phosgene, while The British P gas helmet absorbed no more than 0.059 g of phosgene.

In addition to Prokofiev’s mask, the Russian army in 1915 also had a wet gas mask-cap, similar to French and British helmets which did not have an exhalation valve.

Mask of Prokofiev, autumn 1915

Mask of Prokofiev, autumn 1915


The peak of the evolution of the French wet mask was the M2 (LTN) mask covering the face with eyes, which entered the army in February 1916. It consisted of 40 layers of gauze soaked in chemical absorbers: one half was saturated with a mixture that protected against phosgene and hydrocyanic acid (urotropine, soda and nickel sulfate), the other with a mixture that protected against benzyl bromide and other lacrimators (castor oil, alcohol, caustic soda). Further increase the number of layers of gauze with absorbers was impossible. The soldier’s head was also welded in this mask.

French mask M2 (L.T.N.)

French mask M2 (L.T.N.)

Therefore, to be in it for a long time was impossible. It follows from this that despite the fact that this gas mask was the best in the French army, this mask was not a reliable protection against coronavirus.

Did our ancestors have a chance?

As you know, war is the engine of progress. It is not a secret that all the technologies in the world are aimed at improving some kind of weapon (regardless of its type) and the technology that is available to ordinary people is a side effect of the arms race of different countries.

After analyzing the available means of defense of the most powerful armies of the continent 100 years ago, we can conclude that everything could turn into a tragedy. The antivirus protection available at that time could not fully stop its spread. The reason for this would be not the direct shortcomings of different masks (miscalculations in the design, poorly selected materials or incorrectly selected chemical composition of the substance that the virus should not have passed into the human body), but an elementary limitation of the technologies of that time. All that is presented in the article above is the fruit of the best chemists, biologists and engineers of that time … So were there any chances?

Apolon 2020



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