Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Painting White Horses for Camouflage During WWI

German horse-painting (c1915)
A couple of years ago, we posted a photograph of French soldiers applying dark coloring to a white horse, to make it less conspicuous. Later, we discovered other references to the same practice, as well as a wonderfully funny cartoon from Life magazine. It was also used by the American Army  (during the same time period) in its military activities on the US-Mexican border. In our earlier posts, we expressed concern about the harm that might result to the horse, since the pigment that was used was potassium permanganate (aka permanganate of potash or Condy's crystals). As we noted, "Among US soldiers during WWI, it was used twice daily as an irrigation in treating gonorrhea. Today, it is used in connection with eczema, blisters and athlete's foot—and in rocket propellent." It turns out that this horse-painting was practiced by not only the Allies but also by the Germans. There is a photograph (above) from a wartime issue of Scientific American (February 6, 1915) that shows a horse being painted by German soldiers.

Near the end of the war, it was still being practiced, as evidenced by this excerpt from an eyewitness article in the Saturday Evening Post (September 21, 1918, p. 52)—

At five a.m. we rose and went to the railway, where we saw the beloved regiment, in the midst of which we had lived so many years, entrain. Perfect order prevailed, though the embarkation took several hours. Each squadron occupied a train. Freight cars fitted up for soldiers and horses; platform cars for baggage and provisions; and at the end a car or two, second class and far from clean, for the officers, doctors, and so on. A most curious sight were the horses belonging to the regimental band. It was a tradition of the regiment that though the other soldiers were all mounted on bay horses the band should ride pure white steeds. With the new ideas of warfare these animals became a danger to their unit, and had been dyed for safety in olive brown. This was their first appearance in their disguise; and their comrades in the four squadrons did not recognize them and made a dreadful fuss, showing such desire to avoid the poor painted creatures that the latter felt insulted, and regarding themselves as victims of a ridiculous mistake they lost no opportunity of protesting. Their humiliation turned them timid and fractious, and it took time and persuasion to get them into their cars. Everyone rushed to help; and officers as well as soldiers were amused at the result of this first essay at camouflage, which came as a diversion to our strained feelings.