Friday, June 22, 2018

Teaching Camouflage | The Real Art of War 1917

Top photo shows painted mural concealing the road
In an earlier blog post, we shared drawings and photographs of the use of perspective Illusions as a means of concealing activity, such as the movement of troops and equipment. These were huge, painted canvas backdrops, probably inspired by the theatrical backdrops in stage settings. They are also not dissimilar from the enormous scenic murals that provided the outdoor backgrounds for Buffalo Bill's Wild West performances, including phony boulders made by simply draping canvas tarps. We've now run into yet another example of the use of forced perspective in World War I. The article, reproduced above, was an unsigned full-page article called TEACHING CAMOUFLAGE, THE REAL "ART" OF WAR, TO AMERICA'S SOLDIERS, published in the St Louis Dispatch (Sunday, July 22, 1917, pp. 9-10). The entire text of the article is reproduced below—

To the German observers this perspective looked just as it had the night before. In reality they were looking at a cleverly painted screen behind which heavy guns were being placed. Drawn from a photograph.

It is the painting cannon, depots, hangars, piles of ammunition, and other war materials to blend with the surrounding landscape and be invisible to aviators. Even a countryside has been transformed so that troops could move behind a screen unknown to the Germans. American painters already have formed an organization to volunteer for service.

CAMOUFLAGE—Humbugging disguise; its main principle is the destruction of outline by paint or other artifice. See Camoufle; Camoufleur.

Such is the made-to-order definition of one of the newest words in our language, put there by the necessities of war. It will not be found in any dictIonary as yet, but it will soon be there in its proper place, precise and up-to-date. The adaptive and imaginative Frenchman coined it; the Britishers were slow to take up this new art of concealing themselves and their equipment from the common enemy. In fact, so much so that their chief protagonist, H. G. Wells, goes after his compatriots in this fashion:

"The principle of breaking the outline does not seem to be fully grasped upon the British front. Much of the painting of guns and tents that one sees is a feeble and useless dabbing or strIping; some of the tents I saw were done in concentric bands of radiating stripes that would on the whole increase their visibility from above. In one place I saw a hangar painted a good gray-green, but surrounded and outlined by white tents. My impression—and it may be quite an unjust one—was that some of our British Colonels misunderstand and dislike camouflage.”

Be that as it may, America is for this now highly developed trick-of-war, brush, tube, palette and all. Two hundred of the foremost artists of New York and other cities have already responded to the call, and when our cannon roll out towards the front they will Iook like the grassy ground, from above; and our hangars and our camps and our depots for munitions and supplies will be peaceful bits of meadowland or forest, as viewed from the German aeros circling the blue; a tarpaulin covering a pile of big shells lyIng in a roadway will have the dust of the road and the green of its edges reproduced upon it—our army is for the camouflage, first, last and all the time!

Sherry E. Fry and Barry Faulkner, two New York artists who were the recipients of the American prize to Rome. were the prime movers in the American camouflage. They enlisted the aid of several others—Walter Hale, Edwin Blashfield, J. Alden Weir and men of similar distlnction and called a meeting. The American Academy of Design went in, and the Architectural League, followed by the Society of Illustrators and the Society of Scene Painters. Mr. Blashfield was made chairman and Mr. Fry secretary. Then Washington was notified, and an appreciative letter returned from the office of the Chief of Staff.

A battalion of four companies of the camouflage Is tentatively proposed for each field army of from four to six divisions. Each company will consist of a Captain of camouflage, with three or four Lieutenants, eight or 10 Sergeants, 15 to 20 Corporals and the remainder privates. Its members wlll be put on a strictly military basis as to pay and allowances. A committee of the War College Division is now studying camouflage with a view to making definite recommendations to the Secretary of War. In the meantime the New York volunteer artists have been asked to submit technical details as to material and functions.

Abbott Thayer of Dublin, N.H., was the fIrst person ever to take up the art of concealment when he began the study of the protective coloring of animals 25 years ago. He noted that such beasts as the zebra and okapi were parts of the landscape at a few yards distance and he evolved the prlnciple that the breaking or outline was the destruction of visibility.

Little was thought of camouflage at the onset of the present big conflict. There were white kid gloves—fatal targets for German snipers—and waving plumes; the burnished cuirass and the pennoned lance. Then the two contending lines dug themselves in and locked horns. Concealment became everything—concealment from the aero with the telescopic eye; from the artillery observation station, binocular-eyed; from the practiced glance of the sharpshooter and the keen vision of the patrols. French artists in the ranks busied themselves; a new branch of the art military was born—camouflage.

Today it is highly developed. There are two branches, invisibility and imitation. A supply train may look like a row of cottages; that is imitation. A screen tops a great gun so that the green of the screen blends with the grass of the meadow; that is invisibility. And there Is a third offshoot—the art of making compelling replicas of camps, guns, piles of supplies, trenches, ammunition depots and the like, which are not bonafide at all, but the aero man thinks they are and wastes his bombs and energy at attacking nothlng worthwhile.

Such is the great game of hocus-pocus. The French, grasping the idea of the zebra’s stripes and the leopard’s spots, paint their tents in map-like shapes of strong green and bright yellow. At short distances the objects so painter are completely swallowed up in the landscape. An airman will have to fly dangerously low to spy out the trick.

French women work zealously at camouflage—“a tip to American women now drilling in khaki, utterly useless,” says one officer of the American unit. They weave countless square yards of a special open green fabric out of rushes, which can be stretched between poles, or spread out on roofs of supply depots, or on sheds with extreme rapidity.

“We propose to makes ours,” says Mr. Fry, “of American chicken wire fencing or grillage. This will give us a substantial background in which to weave whatever green substance we need to blend with the particular landscape in hand.”

Some great feats of camouflage have been pulled off in the past few months by the clever French poilu-camoufleurs. It was necessary that a large force of troops be moved along a road swept by German artillery at the first sign of anything doing. In a snug place of concealment behind the lines the artists painted on a screen that entire stretch of exposed roadway, with its background, as if it were to be a scene on the stage. Then in the night it was mounted on piles on the side of the road towards the enemy, so that when day dawned the German saw nothing extraordinary—there was the familiar road, as of the day before, wholly barren of human movement. But behind the screen along that road thousands and thousands of French soldiers were quietly marching to take their new positions, a water cart rolling along every 100 yards between the companies to keep down the dust.

Another time the German positions commanded a railway track far into the distance behind the French lines. That whole track, signals, rails and ties, and the tress that fenced in the line and hills on the horizon, were all painted on a wide screen and set up in the night across a village street which was needed. The enemy never found out the trick.

It is no safe occupation, this camouflage. The camoufleur, to achieve the right perspective, must take flights over his objectives. He must set up his whimsies at the most exposed points. Aero and auto and motor cycle must be used by him to get about, nor can he carry weapons of offense while he works. With everyone else, he must take a sporting chance.

Already we see a little of the new art in New York. One army tug down the bay is painted a dull gray, with black horizontal wave lines all over it, hull, cabin, pilot house and all. Army motorcycles are painted olive drab, with maroon stripes. The official automobiles that whisk around the machine guns are similarly colored.