Thursday, June 25, 2020

The wizard of oz becomes schooled on camouflage

Walt McDougall (1904), Land of Oz comic page
There is no denying that American artist Walt McDougall (1858-1938) was an extraordinary cartoonist. His work is funny and beautifully drawn. Above is a single full-color newspaper page (1904) for L. Frank Baum's Land of Oz. And at the bottom of this blog post is another full-page comic (1897), amazingly structured, in which works by a number of cartoonists are featured—McDougall's work is inside the triangle on the left of the page. Both of these cartoons are in public domain, and can be accessed as image files on McDougall's Wikipedia page.

McDougall was also interested in camouflage, and he wrote a long newspaper account about that subject during World War I. I've republished the entire text below. But I haven't republished the illustrations he made for it. None of those drawings are of the quality of his cartoons, and one of them is blatantly offensive: it shows military brass having drinks at the Army and Navy Club (where I once lectured—on the subject of camouflage) in Washington DC. An African-American waiter is shown as a clueless black-faced minstrel, as was thought to be funny back then. It brings up painful memories of my own childhood when, as recently as the early 1950s, the movie theatre in the small Iowa community in which I grew up was still featuring "minstrel shows" in which white musicians (there were no black residents at the time) would perform in blackface. With that as a timely disclaimer, here is the text of McDougall's article—

Walt M’Dougall, TRAILING THE CAMOUFLAGE IN WASHINGTON JUNGLES: Certain Adventures of a Patriot Who Endeavored to Do His Bit for Our Newest Art: An “Inside Story” of the Incident That Gave Birth to Camouflage, Written and Illustrated by the Man Who Hereby Sets Forth His Claim to Rank as the Original “Camouflager,” in The Washington Post, June 10, 1917, p. 3—

Camouflage is pronounced as it is spelled, with the “g” soft and mushy, as in “garage,” and with the accent on the “cam.” The art and mystery of concealing batteries, roads and large, important officials by means of artificial scenery was given this name by the French, who knew that it would be a long time before people could determine whether it was a new kind of cheese or a bit of feminine wearing apparel.

Some time ago I became possessed of certain reliable information regarding camouflage through a returned Canadian officer and promptly addressed the War Department a fervent appeal to send me to the French front to gather further information, models, data, and insect parasites for the instruction of our own army. I realized that the task required the imagination of a playwright, the art of a scene painter, the skill of a stage carpenter, the strength of a blacksmith, the nerve of a literary agent, the stomach of a hyena, and the nerve of a motion picture substitute.

Nobody knows what became of that appeal.

New York Got the Edge
Two weeks ago I arrived in Florida in response to a suggestion from a high official to present my plea in person, and almost immediately discovered that while I had been dreaming under the orange blossoms a national camouflage division had been organized in New York, with units in various other cities, and that a number of able-bodied artists already were drilling at night in vacant lots. It was even said that they were wearing uniforms. Now, New York usually tumbles to a new thing only after all the rest of the country has tried it out, and then it starts it off as a new and original fad, but in this case, it seems to have got there first.

Somewhat startled and nervous, I devoted my initial efforts to ascertaining just how far the movement had progressed. Hastily seeking the aforesaid prominent official I was guided to the War Department, where we consulted a bland and amiable Major Blank, who, after candidly admitting that he had never heard of camouflage, said that from what I had revealed to him he didn’t think it quite fair to pester the department about such piffle when it was so busy with really important matters.

“Major, on my word of honor as a gentleman,” I repeated, “I assure you that while camouflage is a new war game, it isn’t piffle. It is saving thousands of lives and guns and military material in France.”

Patting me soothingly on the shoulder, he suggested: “Why not go over on your own account as a private citizen and study it?”

When I asked him, rather testily, I admit, how long he thought I’d last gumshoeing around the French front with a camera, a sketchbook, and a tape measure, picking centimeters and calories off the big guns, he appeared a trifle hurt, but when he got his breath he said that the War Department couldn’t bother with “frills” at this time and that perhaps I might manage to get away with the second or third division of troops going over.

I asked the next man who was consulted, point-blank, if he had ever heard of camouflage.

Thought It a New Insect Powder
“Yes,” said he in a flash; “It is the new insect powder they’re getting from the Phillippines.” However, he was only a civilian.

I began to see, dimly, that my task was going to difficult. We went to the Cosmos Club to dine, where I met an African explorer, who wanted to bet me that camouflage was a subspecies of the dingo family. Late at night, reduced to a sort of dumb despair, I went to the Press Club, where I encountered artist Felix Mahoney, [a cartoonist as well] who proved to have at his finger-ends all the knowledge there is about “Who’s Who and Where” in camouflaging. He formed the local unit and invited me to witness the evening drill the following night. I was surprised to learn that they were not drilling with paintbrushes, but actually learning the military manual under the instruction of a real army officer. This looked like something really tangible.

I also learned that evening that among other things it is supposed that “the camouflage artist is like any other soldier. He goes where he is sent, and, in addition to his arms, he carries a 6-inch sketch box, which is his palette, one-half of the box fitting on his thumb in true palette fashion, while the other half holds his little sketch boards and colors. The scene to be ‘camouflaged’ is sketched exactly as it appears in colors that match the true ones. This sketch is conveyed to the base of operations, where other artists copy it upon a large canvas. The framework, if there is any, is designed and the finished ‘scene’ is rushed to the spot it is intended to conceal.”

When I pointed out that if the scenery was already there in situ it scarcely needed to be disguised by an artificial creation precisely imitating its details to conceal it from the enemy, I was regarded with pity.

He Is the Original Camouflager
Now, I need to explain, perhaps, my interest in this matter. Long before the famous bank robbery where the burglars painted a fake safe and robbed the genuine one behind it, in my boyhood days, in fact, I cleverly painted a life-size effigy of my slight and skinny self and set it up in the cornfield where I was supposed to be watching the crows, and while mother thought I was on the job, I was lying under a willow by the creek fishing for perch. While I expose past duplicity with regret, my mother being long dead, I feel it needful to establish my claim as the original camouflager.

Well, I had already begun to suspect that I stood a swell chance of getting to the front, but I persisted. The next day I met a man in another department who confessed that he had heard that the French used artists in the army to “stimulate scenery” in deceiving the enemy. Needless to say, he meant “simulate.” I saw the young and enthusiastic artists drill that evening and conferred with them. They expected, every one of them, to be sent to the front, but they were rather misty as to how they were to be instructed, and where, in their special form of military art.  I took occasion to explain that I deserved to be sent over in order to qualify as an instructor for just such lads back here at home. None of these boys wanted to be generals or even captains—they wanted to camouflage.

After three days I got so that I found myself in the Army and Navy Club ordering camouflage cocktails for an aged major general and I realized that I had reached a critical stage. I proceeded to obtain a new slant on the subject. Armed with a note from Mr. Tumulty I sought the Assistant Secretary of War, but his private secretary, an alert and observing young fellow, seeing the wild, haunted look in my eyes, the hectic four-flush mantling my cheeks and my ill-concealed impatience, steered me up against some husky colonels in a remote part of the building. These officers, kindly and genial, humored me by listening to my ravings, and finally Mr. McKenna sent me by the department bus to the War College, having previously telephoned General Kuhn that I was coming.

They Treated Him Kindly
Right here I want to express my appreciation of the unfailing kindness, cheerful patience and delightful good humor of every official whose valuable time I monopolized during the week. Although they uniformly refused to take me seriously, they took me in and made me at home in every case. I lunched with the general staff on Friday, after walking many miles across country to the War College, a point usually reached only by airplane and wireless, and although I had neither guide, compass or chart, I got there before everything was eaten.

Here I received another shock. I found that General Kuhn actually knew all about camouflage! I mean, all that is known in the United States. That is nearly nothing, but the general had heard about what had been revealed. His delightful personality eased the pain I felt when I saw that he also regarded camouflage as frillery and military lingeries, as it were, but when he kindly enlightened me as to the number (something like 76,000) of eager, earnest souls who ardently desired to sail for France this week in order to study gas-bombing, trench ventilation, painless starvation, cathedral reconstruction, explosive frankfurters, dog training, the German system of converting their dead into toilet soaps, smokeless tobacco and the like on the battlefield, I saw a great light. I now perceive why departmental business proceeds slowly and painfully. If officials are as invariably polite, courteous, and obliging to every crank, bug, and jobseeker as they were to me it is wonderful that anything is accomplished, and it follows that camouflaging the departments is as necessary as anything else.

He Gave Up the Quest
The last man I interviewed on the subject was the celebrated sculptor, Mr. Paul Barlett, chairman of the executive committee of the Washington camouflage division. He assured me that a small army of artists, eminent and otherwise, was preparing to go to France, where they were to take up this pursuit.

“Do you mean that the government will send this division over as an actual organization of artists?” I asked.

He intimated that such was his understanding.

“And when this army, well-drilled and qualified as soldiers, arrives at the front, will it be marched somewhere and proceed to become students of camouflage, under the instruction of 700 busy scene painters now occupied in disguising France, or will they just camouflage around, picking up the art between the barrage fire and the hospitals?” I persisted.

Mr. Bartlett’s manner suggested that my question peeved him, or, at least, so it seemed to me, and I obtained no answer to the question of how our earnest seekers after knowledge would become qualified to proceed to camouflage. However, this finished my efforts to inject my own personality into the movement. I will not see France until the war is over, and I will never know more about camouflaging than anybody else does.

Walt McDougall and others (1897)