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The nature and use of camouflage in World War One

Updated on July 10, 2012

What is camouflage?

If you ask anyone , what is camouflage? they will tell you it is something that will make you hidden, yet the word did not exist until the First World War. The first example of published use is from the Daily Mail in May 1917 where it was defined as "The act of hiding anything from your enemy is termed camouflage".

Section de Camouflage

Camouflage was first used at the start of the war when two french artists working independently covered their positions with sheets which they painted with blurring colours which made them indistinguishable from the air, especially to the enemy aircraft spotters. In February 1915 the French Army's "section de camouflage" was established with a set priority to disguise both guns and gunners from aerial views to reduce the loss of men and equipment. All the units men were experienced artists, painters and designers, many from the world of theatre.

Wartime camouflage
Wartime camouflage
Picasso- inspirational link with the concept of camouflage
Picasso- inspirational link with the concept of camouflage

Picasso influence

The camouflage artists took their inspiration from the pre war avant garde painters. Picasso had used techniques to distort figures and ground and use different viewpoints and perspectives which showed the original in a new light. These techniques were adapted by the painters to hide the originals- in this case, the guns. Picasso, on seeing a camouflage painted artillery piece moving through Paris, was heard to say, "we invented that".

The British saw camouflage as the art of deception rather than concealment. Given official status in 1915 it did not come into the public domain until 1917 as it was treated as an Official Secret. The major British camouflage artist was Solomon Joseph Solomon a Royal portrait painter . Aged 54 at the outbreak of the war, Solomons was too old for the front but signed up for one of the first volunteer corps for home defence, formed from older men involved in the Arts World. Solomons wrote to the London Times, his letter being published on 27th January 1915


Sir

"The protection afforded animate creatures by Nature's gift of colour assimilation to their environment might provide a lesson to those who can equip an army; seeing that invisibility us an essential in modern strategy. To be invisible to the enemy is to be non existent for him. Our attempts in this direction might be more scientific. A knowledge of light and shade and its effect on the landscape is a necessary aid to the imagination of a designer of the uniform in particular, and the appurtenances of war in general"

He commented on the colouring to the soldiers uniforms indicating that at times they became very conspicous and of the limited measures that could be taken to disguise men and machinery from the air.

Wellingtons British troops in Red and Grey
Wellingtons British troops in Red and Grey
Officers uniform from WW1 in khaki
Officers uniform from WW1 in khaki

If you think back through history- the uniforms of the army- especially the British army are scattered with colour. The knights of old with their bright shields and plumes- the later thin red line with the British Army regiments clad in scarlet- all bright and brash. Maybe part of the objective was to use colour to frighten the opposition. During the late 18th century the use of snipers and sharp shooters became more prevalent and the uniforms started to tone down as men bright colours were an easier target. By the 1850s the Indian mutiny encouraged soldiers to stain their helmets and belts with tea to darken ,. Thus was the forerunner of Khaki which was adopted by the British Indian Army. The Boer Rebellion (1899-1902) where the Boers wore dusty clothing that blended into the landscape convinced the British that Bright uniforms should be kept for the  parade ground only.

Sololmons letter to the Times provoked interest in the higher echelons of the army and gained the attention of the Second army commander General Sir Herbert Plummer  who summonsed Solomon to the front in France. As a result on his return he was commissioned by General Scott Moncrief to build camouflage observation posts. These he intended to be made out of steel but camoflagued by wood from the Royal estates. Solomon was promoted overnight from Private to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in order to do this important work.

Not all of Solomons ideas were accepted by the army. He suggested covering trenches with camouflagued groundsheets but this was rejected as the trenches quickly filled with water of the water pooled on top of the sheets.

It is suggested that Solomons team invented camouflage netting which could be threaded with strips of local vegetation to blend in. On 12th March 1916 the first observation tree was raised , Solomon was then tasked with producing camouflage for the armies newest and most exciting weapon- the tank!

The U Boat menace

In February 1917, the Kaiser again instructed his navy to torpedo Allied ships which threatened vital food, fuel and supplies to Britain France and Italy. Allied ships like the German ships were painted a neutral blue grey which was supposedly to blend in with the colour of the sea!

Norman Wilkinson took the lead in this area and having been in action in the Dardanelles he knew what damage enemy U Boats could do and he had seen at first hand the striking silhouettes of ships, especially when moving out of port, often at dawn or dusk against a rising or setting sun. Wilkinson devised the razzle-dazzle design, using bold stripes, curves and zigzags in black, white, blue and green which visually broke up the outline of the structure of the ships hull. It was hoped that a U Boat commander looking through his periscope would be unsure of the vessels course, speed and distance. Although the idea was initially rejected by the Admiralty it was welcomed by merchant ship owners who had suffered heavy losses. The Admiralty changed its mind in the autumn of the year  and ordered all merchant vessels and a number of naval vessels to be painted in the "razzle- dazzle". Wilkinson received Royal approval for his work when he was visited by King George V who was himself an experienced sailor. The King was asked to estimate the speed and course of a particular vessel in the test lab but did not give a  correct answer. The King said " I have been a professional sailor for many years and I would not have believed I could have been so deceived in my estimate."

Oliver Bernard

Oliver Bernard who survived the sinking of the Lusitania continued Solomons work with the British Army. He is credited with making several sensible suggestions. He told the army to start camouflage work before they dug gun sites etc rather than after, as aerial reconnaissance would see the digging  if it were not hidden. He told one Royal Flying Corps Commander to use farm buildings for accommodation rather than build army style huts and not to build specific runways for the planes as thus would only attract enemy observers attention. Writing from today's perspective this seems to be commons sense but I presume that it is a learned behaviour from watching all those war films on TV!

The use of camouflage, started in the early years of the war continued throughout the war until its end, used by both sides with some success. It was to play a larger part in the second world war some 21 years later.

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      CASE1WORKER 7 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM

      thanks jackavc- off to read your hub

    • jackavc profile image

      jackavc 7 years ago from Australia

      Great piece of work.I love all these quriky bits of history. I is really interesting how wearing khaki, the forerunner to camo came about. I did a hub not long ago on it https://hubpages.com/education/A-History-of-Khaki

      I really enjoyed reading your hub good job :)

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