Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Camoufleur | WWI Camp Newspaper

We've been greatly excited this week—and for good reason. A few days ago, we received a wonderful package from a Texas-based librarian named Nancy Cunningham. After seeing our blog, she sent an email, asking if we might be interested in three issues of a World War I camp newspaper called The Camoufleur. According to an editorial note, it was published by the "Camouflage Company of the 24th Engineers" [elsewhere I've seen it listed as Company F of the 25th Engineers, but before long it was reorganized as Company A of the 49th Engineers]. Also known as  the American Camouflage Corps, the unit was in training in 1917 at Camp American University, on the outskirts of Washington DC, preparing to go off to France.

We are so pleased to discover that these materials have somehow survived all these years (they are terribly fragile, and it's entirely possible that these are the only remaining copies). The first issue was published on October 31, 1917, with subsequent issues on November 17 and December 11 (most likely these were the only issues, because soon after the date of the third one, the unit sailed for Europe). Each issue consists of eight pages, measuring 11 inches wide by 13.75 inches in length, and printed on now-brittle newsprint. The front page of the second issue is shown above. The motto on the masthead reads "Seeing Was Believing."

Presumably all the contents of these issues (brief articles, updates on the camoufleurs' work, bad poetry, cartoons and comic drawings) were produced by the American artists and architects who were serving at US Army camoufleurs. Many of their names are included in the lists of contributors. Other names are mentioned because the same unit also produced and performed in a camouflage-themed stage comedy, titled Les Blagueurs (the jokers). With a cast of forty-one performers, the four-act comedy premiered at Camp American University, then traveled to Camp Meade (near Middletown PA) for repeat performances on November 23 and 24.

We've talked about many of these artists before, in earlier postings on this blog, or on our websites, or in three books on the subject, FALSE COLORS: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage (2002), CAMOUPEDIA: A Compendium of Research on Art, Architecture and Camouflage (2009), and SHIP SHAPE: A Dazzle Camouflage Sourcebook. In the second issue (shown above) there is an article about a visit to the camouflage unit by US President Woodrow Wilson, Mrs. Wilson, Secretary of War Newton Baker, Commanding General John J. Pershing (although I'm no longer certain of that) and various other high-ranking officers and dignitaries on October 31, 1917. What the article fails to mention is that, by happenstance, among the visitors that day was the well-known portrait painter, John Singer Sargent. In fact, if you look at the front page of this issue, in the photograph on the left the President and Mrs. Wilson are in the foreground, while Sargent (circled in red) is standing in the background. (Incidently, according to The Camoufleur, the two soldiers in charge of the day's demonstrations were Iowa-born sculptor Sherry Edmundson Fry and New Hampshire muralist Barry Faulkner, a cousin of Abbott H. Thayer, the "father of camouflage.")

Below is another photograph of the same event taken at nearly the very same moment. It's available online at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs website, but it was also distributed to newspapers throughout the country, and used in brief news stories about Wilson's reaction to the camoufleurs' demonstrations.

For example, the following news article, titled "President Wilson Is Fooled by Camouflage. Unable To See Soldier within Five Feet of Him," was published in the New York Tribune, November 15, 1917, p. 2—

Camouflage, that deceptive military art, fools others besides soldiers and airmen on the Western front. Right down in Washington it has hoodwinked n0less a person than the commander and chief [sic] of the army and navy, Woodrow Wilson.

The story of how this came about was told last night at the Fine Arts Building, in West Fifty-Seventh Street, by Captain Aymar Embury [in civilian life, a prominent architect], of the engineer corps, who told of the camouflage work that he and his men are doing at the experimental field at Washington Barracks, near the nation's capital.

The President was invited to a demonstration of camouflage at the field. With him came the Secretary of War and fourteen generals [among them, according to the article, Generals William P. Biddle, Saltsman, William M. Black, Winslow, Abbott, and Edwin B. Babbitt], and they were all fooled.

"Do you see the man?" Captain Embury asked the Chief Executive as he stood upon the field.

"What man?" Mr. Wilson asked, and refused to believe it when he was told that a soldier was concealed within five feet of him.

The captain blew a whistle and a soldier sprang, literally from the earth [from a hole in the ground, beneath a papier maché rock, as seen here in the foreground], to the President's delight.

They then asked Mr. Wilson if he could find the field gun concealed near by. He looked long and hard. There didn't seem enough cover for one, and he said so at last.

"And then," said Captain Embury last night, "A screen of foliage was swung aside and the gun went off. The President jumped. It was a good hearty jump. He seemed to cover about fourteen [feet? inches?] of ground."

But why was John Singer Sargent there? It turns out that Sargent had been at the White House that morning, painting a portrait of the President. During the sitting, the subject of military camouflage came up, and Sargent could not help but tell about his strange experience two years earlier, when he had offered to assist American painter Abbott H. Thayer in demonstrating the effectiveness of camouflage to the British Army's top brass in London (we'll share more on Thayer and that ill-fated effort in a future post). By coincidence, the President explained, he, the First Lady and others had been invited to a training camp that same afternoon to witness the clever inventions of the American Camouflage Corps. At Wilson's suggestion, Sargent joined the entourage.

As for the wealth of materials in these three issues of The Camoufleur, this is (as they say) only the tip of the iceberg. We've now scanned every page very carefully, to provide future researchers with access to digital files and printed facsimiles, and we will be publishing other highlights in future postings on this blog. Again, all this has thankfully come about through the wisdom and generosity of librarian Nancy Cunningham, who purchased these and assorted materials on eBay many years ago while looking for information about the 604th Engineers (in France, c1918), her grandfather's unit. These materials had been the property of Major William John Harrison (a medical officer), who had been a camp doctor during 1917 at Camp American University. For whatever reason, he never discarded these issues of this wonderfully odd publication.

One other note related to this: In an old issue of the Ogden Standard (Ogden UT), on January 19, 1918, p. 1, there is a substantial article on "Trench and Camp Newspapers for Our Soldiers." It focuses on two WWI American camp publications, of which one is The Camoufleur.