The rattle: neither beautiful, nor complicated, nor pleasing to the ear. But dig deeper into the history of this unassuming piece of wood, and you will find its first impressions deceiving. Today, we associate its rapid clicking sound with excitement. Hence the reason the rattle has been reproduced into countless plastic copies for sports matches all over the globe.
Second World War Gas Rattle
Yet from 1939-45, it was the notorious sound – and silence – of this very object which helped it to play one of the most vital ongoing purposes on the Home Front. It acted as a gas rattle, to raise the alarm that poisonous gas was spreading through the air. The First World War of 1914-18 had seen chemical weapons heavily utilised with horrifying effects. As a result, during the Second World War, the prospect of a German chemical weapon attack hung over the British population as a constant threat. Gas drills were carried out across the entire country, and Air Raid Precaution (ARP) wardens were issued with the duty of supervising the British Blackout.
‘Hitler will send no warning – so always carry your gas mask.’ - British Second World War poster
Thankfully, Hitler’s chemical warfare never materialised, and the rattles didn't come into practical use. Because of this, it’s hard to say whether the provisions made would have worked in practice. But the silence of this simple warnig siren didn’t render it useless. It was undoubtedly among one of the most important pieces of equipment in an ARP warden’s toolkit, and this one could have saved innumerable lives in Elmbridge had its time ever come.
This object is currently on display in our 'Elmbridge at War: The Blitz in our Borough' exhibition.