First World War camouflage

Concealment and deception have always had some part in warfare, but during the First World War the practice became systematic.

The use of aerial reconnaissance and the position and proximity of the opposing trenches on the Western Front made it easier to detect troops both on and behind the front lines. Armies needed to find new ways to hide from, observe and deceive enemy forces. The need for the effective use of army camouflage became great, with military camouflage soon finding its firm place in the British Army in 1916. 

The history of army camouflage dates back to 1915 when the French Army became the first to create a dedicated camouflage unit. The meaning of the word 'camouflage' came from the French verb meaning 'to make up for the stage'. Its practitioners, many of whom were artists, were known as camoufleurs.

The following year the British Army established its own camouflage section under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Wyatt. It was known as the Special Works Park RE (Royal Engineers). Since its inception, military camouflage has worked to conceal and protect troops and equipment from enemy movements, shaping the effective use of deception in warfare.  


1. Camouflage was most commonly used on guns and vehicles

a camouflaged British-style tank crossing a trench and breaking through barbed wire. Two biplanes fly above. text: SEVENTH WAR LOAN WAR BONDS, LIKE TANKS, BREAK HUN'S RANKS. JOHN SANDS LTD. SYDNEY.
© IWM Art.IWM PST 10628

Concealment is the most common camouflage technique. It is achieved by altering the physical characteristics that make an object visible to an observer - shape, outline, shading and colour - to make it 'disappear' into its surroundings. Camouflage artists created designs of irregular, coloured shapes that made it difficult to determine the outline and form of the camouflaged object, most commonly guns or vehicles. This technique is known as 'disruptive pattern'. Tanks, like the one in this poster, were camouflaged when they were first introduced in 1916, but the practice was abandoned when it was realised that the mud from the battlefield covered the paint.

Uniforms and insignia

2. Each nation developed its own styles of camouflage

Model 1916 steel helmet with leather three-pad liner attached to leather headband. To the upper right front crown is a 40mm impact dent that has fractured the metal.
© IWM UNI 8312

The German helmet pictured here, issued from 1917 to many artillery crew or elite stormtroopers, is painted in a disruptive pattern. The technology to print camouflage designs onto fabric did not exist until the 1920s, although British snipers often painted their uniform robes to help them blend with local terrain.


3. Sometimes being seen was necessary

The manufacture of papier-mâché snipers' heads, which were generally made in moulds of plaster of Paris.
© IWM Q 17779

Visual deception is the other main camouflage technique. Unlike concealment, its effectiveness relies on an object being visible. The aim is to disguise something significant or valuable as something which is of little importance or obvious interest, or to trick an enemy into making flawed decisions based on inaccurate judgements of the position or strength of opposing forces. Camouflage units during the First World War made papier-mâché dummy heads like the ones shown in this workshop to draw out enemy snipers. Any sniper firing at one of them would reveal his position.


4. Camouflaging could be a dangerous task

Outer shell, upper and lower liners field observation post made from metal in the form of a tree trunk.
© IWM FEQ 854

Camouflage trees effectively concealed an observation post from which troops could watch enemy movements without being seen. The trees were replicas of battle-damaged trees in no-man's land. They were made behind the lines using sketches drawn by a camouflage artist on the battlefield. A camouflage team would then cut down the real tree at night and replace it with the replica. They were often situated in flat, exposed areas in no-man's land, where there were no natural surveillance points and the need for observation posts was greatest. Producing the sketches and positioning the camouflage trees were both highly dangerous tasks.


5. A new camouflage technique was developed for Britain's ships

Single sheet, printed on one side only. Adhered to a paper guard along the top edge.
© IWM Art.IWM DAZ 45

'Dazzle' is the name for the distinctive patterns painted on ships during the First World War.

The concept was invented in 1917 by Norman Wilkinson, a British marine artist and naval officer, in an effort to reduce the number of British merchant ships lost to German submarines.

Wilkinson knew that objects as large as ships could not be concealed and instead sought to use bold shapes and lines as well as contrasting colours to distort a ship's physical form. This made it difficult for submarine commanders to assess a ship's size, shape, course and range.

The British formed a Dazzle Section under Wilkinson and began dazzle-painting ships in the summer of 1917. Shipping losses declined after Dazzle was introduced, but this was largely due to the introduction of the convoy system.

However, Dazzle did boost morale and by mid-June 1918 it had been applied to over 2,300 British warships and merchant vessels.

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