Dr Bertram Lambert and the Box Respirator:
A Settle man’s part in The Great War

Jeanne Carr
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

A display by Barbara Johnson in ‘The Great War’ Flower Festival in Langcliffe Church in 2014 remembered Bertram Lambert (her, and my, great Uncle) and the part he played in gas mask development. Previous accounts are here substantially extended in view of the current commemorations.

Bertram Lambert was born in Settle in 1881, the third son of local printer James Wilcock Lambert and his wife Mary. With his four brothers - William, John, Ernest and Victor he was a pupil at Settle National School (now Settle Primary School) where in 1894 he won a West Riding Technical Exhibitions scholarship to Giggleswick School. Very few pupils are mentioned by name in the old National School log books but an entry for June 28th 1894 reads: ‘Heard today that Bertram Lambert obtained a scholarship at Giggleswick Grammar school in connection with the West Riding Technical Exhibitions’. On the same page it is recorded that Standards VI and VII were learning to recite The Defence of Lucknow and The Charge of the Light Brigade by Lord Tennyson.

In 1900 whilst at Giggleswick School Bertram won an Open Exhibition to Merton College, Oxford, where he gained first class honours in Natural Sciences. He was a member of Merton College cricket XI in 1902 and Settle Cricket Club in 1905.

‘Bert Lambert is a batsman, and as such he often shines,
Though, as you know, this season he’s had awfully hard lines;
His style is very fetching, and even when he fails
He cheers himself and us along with many fairy tales.’

‘... a steady bat, watching the ball carefully. A good fielder.’
(The Chronicle)

He remembered ‘a year when he first knocked up 2000 runs in a season’.
(Merton College Year Book, 1963)

In 1907 there are glowing testimonials by Prof. Odling and others at Oxford written to support his application for the Chair of Chemistry at the University of Sydney in Australia. It is just as well that he was not successful in view of his war work.

Lambert’s Settle Almanac in 1909 carried an article on Limestone and Lime by Bertram Lambert, explaining the chemical decomposition of limestone (calcium carbonate) when heated. He expressed the opinion that ‘One may perhaps be permitted to hope that the structures which deface our valleys are as efficient for their work as they are hideous in appearance’. In June 1910 a notice appeared in Lambert’s Settle Almanac that Bertram was elected to a Senior Studentship awarded by the Goldsmiths Company for the encouragement of research (they still offer postgraduate bursaries). Later he was awarded the highly regarded degree of DSc. For many years he was in charge of the University Chemical Laboratory at Oxford. Somewhat ironically he was a Fellow of both English and German Chemical Societies. He was very skilled in designing and constructing apparatus and he was believed to be the best amateur glass blower in England. For some time before World War I he had been investigating the corrosion of metals. His war work led to a design of a military gas mask which saved a very large number of lives during that war. In World War I, to break the trench deadlock, the armies on the Western Front tried a new weapon, poison gas. In April 1915 the Germans released a cloud of chlorine gas on Allied troops at Ypres. The Allies were horrified. Yet in September, at Loos, the British launched their own gas attack. Germany justified its actions. They stated that The Hague Conventions only discussed projectiles whose sole purpose was the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases and did not cover gases released by cylinders. The Germans also stated that France broke the conventions first. As the war went on, the use of gas intensified. Chlorine (Cl2) was used initially, then phosgene gas (COCl2), diphosgene (ClCO2CCl3 liquid), and tear gas. Tear gas is a lachrymator - a tear inducer such as ethyl bromoacetate, benzyl bromide or phenacyl chloride (a benzene, oxygen, chlorine compound) and many other compounds. Mustard gas (dichlorethyl sulphide,(Cl.CH2CH2)2S) caused great mustard-coloured suppurating blisters. Hydrogen cynanide (HCN) was also employed mid-1917. Thus there was a whole range of chemicals used which had to be identified then investigated to find a protective method.

John Scott Haldane (1860 -1936) working in Oxford University was a Scottish physiologist famous for intrepid self-experimenting which led to many important discoveries about the human body and the nature of gases. From 1907 to 1913 he was Reader in Physiology at Oxford. When the Germans first used poison gas in 1915 Haldane went to the front at the request of the British Secretary of State to identify the gases being used. He found they were chlorine and phosgene. He was at the forefront of developing a workable prototype gas mask to protect the troops. He also designed a portable oxygen administration apparatus for use in the field.

Gas caused horrific injuries. Inhaling a large amount of chlorine made soldiers choke, turn blue and suffocate. Those poisoned by phosgene threw up litres of yellow liquid in a drowning spasm lasting around 48 hours. Mustard gas caused blisters on the skin that could burn down to the bone. Nevertheless, despite these agonies, gas was not usually lethal, killing only three percent of soldiers affected. Was poison gas effective? Gas attacks inspired a fear that was out of all proportion to the damage that was done. Compared with artillery, gas caused few casualties on the Western front. Many victims were back in action within weeks. The armies eventually realised that gas was not the war-winning weapon they were looking for.

The German gas gong and British gas rattle sounded the alarm to alert troops of a gas attack. Gas alarms caused a flurry of activity as soldiers scrambled for their masks. The British Strombos horn, like a ship’s horn, warned of major gas attacks. It could be heard nine miles away. By 1917 British and Empire troops were well-drilled in gas defence, and there were daily equipment checks.

Initially protection was rather ineffectually provided by pads or cloth hoods soaked in chemicals. The Hypo helmet, officially the British Smoke helmet, was invented by Captain Cluny Macpherson, a Newfoundland Regiment medical officer. He found that a grey flannel hood soaked in sodium hyposulphite, an alkali and glycerine could protect the wearer for longer than a pad. From June 1915 2.5 million Hypo helmets were issued but they were uncomfortable to wear. The helmet had two eyepieces which steamed up and cracked easily, and a rubber mouth valve. It could only be used once so it was always necessary to carry two.

The Tube Helmet was developed at the Royal Army Medical College in London. It was impregnated with chemicals to counter phosgene gas. Phosgene was ten times more deadly than chlorine and almost undetectable except for a faint whiff of mouldy hay. It was first used against British troops in December 1915. The Tube Helmet was effective, but difficult to see out of. One of its protective chemicals could burn the skin.

The very effective Small Box Respirator developed by Bertram Lambert and his colleagues was standard British Army issue by 1917. Its box filter contained charcoal and chemical granules that adsorbed all this variety of poisonous gases. Every soldier was individually fitted with his mask and then exposed to tear gas in a chamber for five minutes to make sure it worked. It was the most effective of all the gas masks produced during the war.

Whenever Germany used a new chemical on the battlefield, the Allies had to design new filters with different agents in them to counteract the new poison. At the outbreak of war the British government wrote to the universities asking for chemists and Bertram was commissioned into the Royal Engineers (Special Brigade, Respirators, Register Number 234387) and graded Staff Captain in 1916. Within two months of the first gas attack he had been instrumental in producing the first Box Respirator, very different to the gas hood, which developed into the respirator used by all the allies except the French until the Armistice. The Box Respirator was developed in late summer and autumn of 1915, and first issued early in 1916. It consisted of a tin filled with charcoal and chemicals, with an air inlet valve at the bottom. The tin was connected to an impervious face mask by a rubber tube, in which was a rubber outlet valve. The face mask had two elastic bands attached which slipped over the head and held the mask in position. The whole thing was issued in a waterproof satchel. Air was drawn in through the cylinder, containing the charcoal and chemicals in layers separated by gauze, so that toxic gases were removed from the air to make it breathable. The Box Respirator was a life-saver. As part of this story the work of the Royal Army Medical College at Millbank in London has to be noted. Edward Frank Harrison was a pharmaceutical chemist born in 1869 who tried to enlist but was refused several times on grounds of age. He eventually succeeded in enlisting as a private in the Sportsmen’s Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. By accident he came to the notice of the first head of the anti-gas service, Col. Sir W.H. Horrocks. Harrison was given a rank of lieutenant in 1915 and set to work on the problem of gas attacks in the anti-gas laboratories at the Royal Army Medical College. He became Assistant Controller of Chemical Warfare in November 1917. He was responsible for the organizational aspects of the design and manufacture of the Box Respirator up to his death at the end of 1918. Early in July 1915 Lambert on his own initiative submitted a design of respirator with a new chemical make-up to the RAMC authorities at Millbank and Central Laboratories in France. ‘The appliance was based on the admirable suggestion by Bertram Lambert of Oxford of a filter of permanganate/soda-lime granules’. Edward Harrison, Bertram Lambert and John Sadd set about testing a three-layer mixture of potassium permanganate (KMnO4), soda lime - an alkaline mixture of calcium hydroxide, (Ca(OH)2), sodium hydroxide (NaOH), potassium hydroxide (KOH) and water (H2O) - pumice fragments soaked in sodium sulphate, and charcoal particles. The permanganate destroys organic chemicals by oxidation and the soda-lime adsorbs acid gases such as chlorine. The carbon adsorbs many types of chemical. This adsorbent granular mixture could deal with phosgene and tear gas and other toxic gases. Charcoal supply was difficult - finally carbonized coconut shells were used. John Sadd designed the face mask with a metal mouthpiece held by the teeth. The original Large Box Respirator was too large to wear in trenches so was reduced in size by Harrison to create the Small Box Respirator by placing the permanganate/ soda-lime granules between two layers of bone charcoal. The gas mask could be worn in a way that enabled gunners to work without too much discomfort - using a nose clip and breathing through the filter without wearing a full hood. Over the winter of 1916/7 stannic chloride particles which could penetrate masks were tried as a disabling nasal irritant and there arose a fear of the use of hydrogen cyanide for which the mixture sodium phenate (C6H5ONa) - hexamine was developed. Hexamine (hexamethylenetetramine) is an alkaline absorbent ((CH2)6N4). A mask extension devised by Lambert and H.S.Raper, comprising cellulose wadding and permanganate/soda-lime granules, was issued in early 1917. By July 1917 more efficient mixtures of all the components rather than layers were employed. Early in 1918 Lambert was in charge of the R.E.Design Section of the Anti-gas Department. He had solved a series of difficult problems by organizing the co-operation of the manufacturers (including Boots in Nottingham) and scientists concerned, and was able to develop a design which could be manufactured rapidly on a large scale. In France he was responsible for the administration of a number of Gas Defence Schools, through which several thousand officers and men passed each week. Thus there was ongoing research and development of the respirator and Bertram Lambert was totally involved throughout the war. Few complaints were made of the Large and Small Box Respirators. With an initial box volume of 632 mL a maximum concentration of 100 mg/L phosgene in air could be tolerated, later extended to 1000 mg/L and by 1917 10,000 mg/L could be resisted for 45 to 60 minutes. The Small Box Respirator became the standard gas mask for the British Army. The Italians and Americans were supplied with large numbers of masks before the Americans copied the design for manufacture in the USA. The respirator was uncomfortable to wear but it significantly reduced the efficacy of gas as a weapon.

Bertram was promoted to Major in 1918 and became Chemical Advisor to HQ and Inspector-General of Communications, France. There were other men called B. or Bertram Lambert who served in the Great War so record cards must be considered with caution. He was awarded an OBE (see TNA WO-339-12533) After the war ended he was awarded 12,500 by the Royal Commission on Awards and Inventions, one of only a handful of chemists to be so rewarded for their war work. Some pressure had to be brought on him to accept the award, perhaps because Harrison had died in 1918 and could not be so rewarded. He was released from service 20th March 1919.

After the war ended it appears that Bertram Lambert was looking for a new job. There is a testimonial stating his suitability to direct an Industrial Research Association. However, in 1920 Merton College elected him to a Fellowship as Tutor in Natural Sciences and in 1947 he was made a Senior Research Fellow. On his retirement in 1951 he became Emeritus Fellow of his College. He married Sylvia and had two children, James and Peggy. He died on 1st July 1963. Bertram’s brother John recounted his experience of the start of the war in a privately printed pamphlet entitled ‘A Settle man’s experience on board a German vessel after declaration of war between England and Germany (1914), on a journey between Colombo and Mozambique, Portuguese East Africa’. John had spent four years in Ceylon and was about to come home on leave, about one week before war was declared. He booked passage on the German vessel SS Zieten, together with 200 Australians, and 100 Germans. Austria and Serbia declared war two days before the ship left Colombo and the captain heard by wireless about England and Germany being at war six days after leaving. The passengers were not told. The captain contacted the cruiser Koenigsberg to act as an escort to a safe port and made for Cape Guardi on the North African coast. Only then were passengers made aware of the state of war. The Zieten extinguished all lights to avoid detection while waiting for the cruiser for orders. The ship was put under martial law and was ordered to go alone to Makallah 300 miles NNE of Aden. The ship was then painted black instead of yellow. Further complicated movements followed and after several days sailing in an unknown direction the ship ran out of coal and had to burn stores of coconuts, wool and other materials (with flames coming from the funnel!). Eventually they reached Mozambique. The passengers were put on short rations - a one course meal three times a day instead of six courses. Here the funnels were repainted to represent a British India vessel flying the red ensign. Food and fresh water supplies were beginning to run out. However, after more comings and goings of other ships, John transferred to the British India boat Pallamcotta and arrived in Durban; from there he came home to Plymouth on the White Star liner Runic. The journey took 73 days instead of the expected 24.


Barbara Gent, Giggleswick School archivist, provided details of Bertram’s academic and military careers. Settle Primary School gave access to the school record books. Chris Foster, Craven Community Projects, supplied internet sources of information. Some additional information has been supplied by Mike and Mary Slater after a visit to the Imperial War Museum World War I exhibition and the IWM library in London. Barbara Johnson made John Lambert’s pamphlet available. The photograph of ‘Bertram Lambert 1920s’ is copyright Jeanne Carr.


  • Bull, Stephen, 2014. Trench: A History of Trench Warfare on the Western Front . Osprey Publ. Co.
  • Carr, Jeanne, 2009. The taming of a weapon of mass destruction. Craven Herald 5 December.
  • Girard, Marion, 2008. A strange and formidable weapon, Univ. Nebraska Press pp66-69.
  • Downing, T., 2014. Secret Warriors: Key scientists, code breakers and propagandists of the Great War. Publ. Little, Brown.
  • Haber, L.F., 1988. The poisonous cloud - chemical warfare in the First World War. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
  • Hartcup, Guy, 1988. The war of invention: scientific developments 1914-18. Brassey's Defence Publs. p103.
  • Holmes, R., 2004. Tommy: The British soldier on the Western Front 1914-1918. Publ. Harper Collins.
  • Jones, Simon, 2007. World War I Gas warfare tactics and equipment. Osprey Publ. Co.
  • The National Archives, T173/314 Lime and permanganate granules.
  • Williams, R.J.P., Chapman, A., Rowlinson, J.S. (eds), 2009. Chemistry at Oxford: a history from 1600 to 2005. RSC Publishing.

Pictures in Imperial War Museum.

Bertram Lambert 1920s Jeanne Carr
Helmets and the Small Box Respirator (in the Imperial War Museum)

Bertram Lambert 1920s Jeanne Carr

Helmets and the Small Box Respirator (in the Imperial War Museum)