Camoufleurs And the Art of War
Muse Science Magazine for Kids|January 2022
Artists use optical illusions to win wars and save lives.
By Elizabeth Tracy

In the spring of 1918, strange things were afoot in New York City's Van Cortland Park. Rocks and trees were moving and calling out across the landscape. “I stumbled over a hump of grass, which squealed when I stepped on it, and rose before me, wrote journalist Elene Foster in the New York Tribune. Foster wasn't hallucinating. She was witnessing a specialized military unit in action. They were developing new techniques to protect American troops in World War I.

The talking trees were members of the Women's Reserve Camouflage Corps, volunteer camoufleurs trained in the new military science of camouflage. These words come from the French word camoufleur, which means to disguise. The women had learned camouflage techniques from Lieutenant H. Ledyard Towle, a U.S. Army officer and artist, and were testing outfits designed to trick the eye. The camoufleurs included working artists like painters, sculptors, photographers, and woodcarvers. At a time when women weren't allowed in the armed forces, or even to vote, working in the military was unheard of. But as men went to fight at the front, women assumed crucial roles in the war effort.

World War I and Early Camouflage

Camouflage aims to conceal or confuse. Roy R. Behrens is a camouflage expert who has taught graphic design at the University of Northern Iowa and other schools. He writes and produces YouTube videos, and runs a blog called “Camoupedia. He separates camouflage into two categories: high-similarity and high-difference. Behrens says camouflage works because our brains have a natural tendency to group things together when they appear similar, near to, or in alignment with one another. These built-in biases of the brain are quintessential tools of the trade when designing camouflage,” he says.

Early ideas about military camouflage sprang from the natural world. Artist and naturalist Abbott H. Thayer studied protective coloration in animals. During World War I, Thayer urged the allied British and American armed forces to adopt various camouflage methods, and he was backed by other artists and scientists. At first, the military commanders dismissed such bold ideas.

As WWI progressed, however, camouflage came into its own. New military technologies and techniques such as machine guns, trench warfare, and aerial reconnaissance revealed a need to hide ground troops and equipment from the enemy. The brightly colored uniforms of the past were being replaced with solid-colored earth tones. Yet troops remained vulnerable. Guns and vehicles were easy targets, too. High similarity techniques were adopted to help equipment and men blend into the landscape and hide from enemy eyes. Women wove camouflage nets designed to look like foliage to cover equipment and helped build observation posts in the shape of tree trunks to watch enemy lines.

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