|From DAZZLE SHIPS: World War I and the Art of Confusion|
Midwell Crampton Wilson, Thoughts in Passing. Carroll County Citizen-Times (Delphi IN), August 17, 1918, pp. 1 and 3—
“Do you know anything about camouflage?”
“No, I never eat foreign cheeses.” Now this conversation MUST have taken place in the early stages of the war, for since the American army has been in the thick of the fight, we use the word camouflage as if it had always been in our vocabulary and we know it isn’t a brand of cheese, either.
The war has made quite a contribution to our stock of words. Scarcely a day but that we use “over-the-top.” “Over there,” “somewhere in France,” “carry-on,” “morale,” "hooverize” and “let’s go” are familiar expressions that we use almost constantly.
But few war words are more popular than “camouflage.” The Old Settlers’ ice cream was camouflaged with syrup and condensed milk. A nice brown meringue on top of bread pudding makes it look like something good and that is camouflage. When the guarantors of a picnic eat the back and neck (leaving the drumstick and pulley-bone for the guests) and register great joy in so doing, they are doing the camouflage act that our mothers have done all their lives. The girl at the Old Settlers’ who wore the furs was camouflaging her feelings for style’s sake but when
“Little grains of powder
Little dabs of paint
Make the girl of forty
Look like what she ain’t”
then it is, that camouflaging is really well done.
I have read that it is the most celebrated word coined in the great war, will undoubtedly live in the dictionaries, and the name and the art which it labels will be credited to the French, who first applied the science of “concealing coloration” as a means of military disguise. But credit for the original idea and its development should rightfully go to an American, Abbott H. Thayer, one of America’s most distinguished painters. It is said that more than twenty years ago Mr. Thayer, as a huntsman and student of bird and animal life, made an exhaustive study of nature’s method in protecting wild things.
The chameleon is an artful little camouflager, being able to change his color to resemble the object on which he lies. It is an excellent defense for him, as he is too small to fight, and does not care to spend too much time fleeing from his enemies, who desire his body for dinner.
The American bobwhite adopts a medley of colors—reddish, black, brown, yellow and white—that completely harmonized with the foliage colors during all seasons of the year. He is present in person, but lost to sight.
The parrot fortifies the defense produced by his rancorous voice by brilliant colors that blend perfectly with the brilliant foliage of his tropical home.
The present camouflage is simply making objects, principally military machines, look like something else—a haystack or a bush—in which practice the painters are simply copying from Nature’s most effective disguises, through which only the expert can see.
The modern army is now using every known device for camouflage. The olive drab or khaki-colored uniform blends into the landscape and is lost to sight much sooner than the more brilliant colors formerly worn by troops. Flashing breastplates, buttons and polished equipments of all kinds have been absolutely discarded for others that do not shine.
The Alpine troops, fighting above the snow lines, went to great extremes in painting themselves white, so that there was no contrast with snow during the day and for night duty troops have painted themselves black for easier hiding. During the spring and early summer green colors are used, and as soon as the season progresses, dabs of yellow, red and golden tints are used to duplicate the color effects of the advancing season. So it is that camouflage dates back farther than the Trojan Horse—it dates back to Nature herself, who gave the cow her mottled hide, no doubt in anticipation of the amateur hunter. The American Indian, by the way, was an adept at camouflage.
A few years ago, a party of us went to the National Military Home, near Marion [IN], to spend Decoration Day. Mr. Wilson was convalescing from an operation for appendicitis. I was thin from worrying. The two girls with us were pale and wan. My father looked at the party and then remarked in his characteristic way that we looked like a bunch of empty snake skins. After dinner on Decoration Day, the two girls looked so exceedingly pale that we insisted they go upstairs and lie down. They were upstairs less than a half hour but when they came down, they looked so wonderfully rested that the whole party became more cheerful. They had color in their cheeks and theirs smiles were bewitching instead of haunting. The change was marvelous and so worthwhile because it helped the “morale” (another war word) of the company. One had to look at these girls twice to notice the camouflage, put on from a box of rouge and some good face powder.
Ever since that day, I have been an ardent believer in face camouflage. Of course, I don’t want to see a girl painted like a battleship, but I can’t help believing in a certain amount of make-up. It is the duty of everyone to appear as beautiful as possible. Red cheeks are prettier than sallow ones and a powdered skin is much neater than an unpowdered one—if you can just keep the world from knowing that you use either rouge or powder. I never have become reconciled to lipstick or an elaborate use of carmine. But just enough to make one look well—and just enough not to get caught at it. This is my notion of real camouflage.
Another form of camouflage the men use is bluffing. I heard the other day of a young man who was in charge of a newly plotted realty tract, upon which the only building was the office of the company. Upon seeing the first person to enter the door, he hastily took down the telephone receiver and commenced:
“Yes, sir, I think we can agree on those terms. Thirty lots in one parcel and twenty in another. Yes, sir, the price is satisfactory—$30,000 at the transfer and the remainder in sixty days. Did you say I could meet you in the morning at nine o’clock and receive your check for $10,000 as the initial payment? Very well, sir.”
Hanging up the receiver, this busy person turned to the man who had entered the office.
“Is there anything I can do for you, sir?”
“Naw, not a thing,” returned the visitor. “I have just come to connect up your telephone, that’s all.”
The fellow was caught in camouflaging and therein lies the sin.
An old fellow on his death bed, in making his will, murmured to his lawyer: “And to each of my employees who have been with me twenty years or more I bequeath $20,000.”
“Holy smoke! What generosity!” the lawyer exclaimed.
“No, not at all,” said the sick man. “You see, none of them have been with me over a year; but it will look good in the papers, won’t it?”
This was a camouflaged will.
Now, Bill Nye [Edgar Wilson Nye], the humorist who appeared in Delphi [IN] with [James Whitcomb] Riley years ago, didn’t believe in camouflage at all. One time he had a cow to sell and he advertised her as follows:
“Owing to my ill health, I will sell at my residence, in township 19, range 18, according to the government survey, one plush raspberry cow, aged eight years. She is of undoubted courage and gives milk frequently. To one who does not fear death in any form she would be a great boon. She is very much attached to her present home with a stay chain, but she will be sold to anyone who will agree to treat her right. She is one-fourth shorthorn and three-fourths hyena. I will also throw in a double-barrel shotgun, which goes with her. Her name is Rose. I would rather sell her to a nonresident.”
I have often wondered if he sold the cow.
Camouflage is a useful art and an interesting study and we await with interest the homecoming of our boys, who will be able to tell us more of the real wartime camouflage. Until then we will use the word at our own sweet will and make it mean all kinds of arts in which “a gay deceiver” is proficient.