Sunday, October 8, 2017


Captured Turkish sniper
Visiting the Western Front in July of 1917, the British monarch King George V toured a camouflage unit in Belgium.  A special correspondent for the Times described the workshop as “a magician’s palace in a Belgium farm, where nothing is as it seems…. where bushes are men and things dissolve when you look at them and the earth collapses… It is the grown-up home of make-believe.”*

Howitzer 1917 under netting,  James Hurley
Australian War Memorial EO1891 
Armies had previously used tactics to hide themselves from the enemy, but the conditions of the First World War made concealment more necessary than ever.  Enemy trenches were often only yards apart, while planes, balloons, and dirigibles flew overhead to photograph positions and gather intelligence.

In 1915, the French were the first to establish a military camouflage unit; their section’s badge featured a silver chameleon.**  Other armies quickly followed suit.  The military use of the word camouflage entered English during the Great War, its origins in the French word camoufler (to make up for the stage).***  Theatrical set designers, sculptors, painters, and other artists served in these units. Their job was not only to conceal, but to deceive. 

Paper mâché dummy heads were used to draw fire and expose the position of enemy snipers; fake trees fashioned from bullet-proof steel and encased in hammered iron plates served as observation posts in No Man’s Land (the simulated bodies of dead horses and human corpses served the same function), while tanks and ships were painted in bold, abstract designs based upon the principles of Cubist art, breaking up silhouettes and confusing observers’ sense of perspective.

USS Leviathan escorted by USS Allen
by Burnell Poole 1918
 One merchant ship captain who objected to the “vivid painting of his vessel” received the following response from a camouflage officer:
Dear Sir,-- The object of camouflage is not, as you suggest, to turn your ship into an imitation of a West African parrot, a rainbow in a naval pantomime, or a gay woman.  The object of camouflage is rather to give the impression that your head is where your stern is.†

Camouflage officers were not the only soldiers who sought to give false impressions, nor were enemy soldiers the only ones deceived.   An unsigned poem titled simply “Camouflage” appeared in the June 28, 1918 edition of the American military newspaper, The Stars and Stripes. 


They tell us tales of camouflage,
The art of hiding things;
Of painted forts and bowered guns
Invisible to wings.
Well, it’s nothing new to us.
To us, the rank and file;
We understand this camouflage
—We left home with a smile.

Erecting the First Camouflage Tree, Solomon J Solomon
© IWM ART 6476 (1)
We saw the painted battleships
And earthen-colored trains,
And planes the hue of leaden skies,
And canvas-hidden lanes.
Well, we used the magic art
That day of anxious fears;
We understand this camouflage
—We laughed away your tears.

They say that scientific men
And artists of renown
Debated long on camouflage
Before they got it down.
Well, it came right off to us,
We didn’t have to learn;
We understand this camouflage,
—We said we’d soon return.

We understand this camouflage,
The art of hiding things;
It’s what’s behind a soldier’s jokes
And all the songs he sings.
Yes, it’s nothing new to us,
To us, the rank and file;
We understand this camouflage,
—We left home with a smile.

Soldiers frequently disguised the ugly realities of war when communicating with loved ones they had left behind.  Men omitted details, obscured the dangers of battle, and camouflaged the truth when writing home to friends and family.  

From his position in front line trenches training with the British in 1918, Private Ollie Hankins wrote home to his father in Richmond, Virginia:
Hello Pop! Guess you thought it was about time I was writing. I am feeling exubrious at present and hope this will find you all well.  This is the 4th of July and we have just finished a lovely dinner. We had real dishes to eat out of & sat at a table in real chairs.  Just think of it! I haven’t heard a word from you all yet, but you need not feel bad about that as there is a reason for my mail being delayed at present, and I expect to get it very soon. We have holiday today and are endeavoring to make the most of it.
Six months later just after the Armistice, Ollie Hankins sent another letter home that revealed what had actually happened that Independence Day:
Dear Papa, I know that my being over here has caused you a lot of worry, but I hope that from now on you will not worry any more about me…. My letter to you all dated July 4th was written just a few yards behind the front line trench and large shells were bursting close by while we ate that 4th of July dinner that I told you about. While on this front I got caught in a barrage, which is not the pleasantest thing in the world to get caught in.  Also had some real use for my gas mask on this front and went to sleep in the blooming thing on several occasions….††
When the unsigned poem was reprinted in the 1920 Yearbook of Newspaper Poetry, it was retitled to reflect a truth countless soldiers in the rank and file had learned: “We Understand Camouflage.”   

*Special correspondent to the Times, quoted in Nicholas Rankin’s A Genius for Deception, Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 141.
**Rankin, A Genius for Deception, p. 25.  The French society portrait painter Lucien-Victor de Scévola is often credited with devising the first modern camouflage; in September of 1914, he used painted canvas to disguise the position of a French artillery battery (Rankin, p. 24).
***Spencer C. Tucker, editor, The European Powers in the First World War: An Encyclopedia, Routledge, 1996, p 160.
†Rankin, A Genius for Deception, p. 131.
††Private C.O. Hankins, “War Letters, Diaries, and Incidents.” Library of Virginia Archives.

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