Pigeon shooters, wildfowlers and deerstalkers do not feature in the new Camouflage exhibition at the Imperial War Museum (IWM), in London, but they should. Among the fake trees, netting types, sniper gillie suits and, er, Japanese designer dresses, there should have been a space marked out for a stuffed ST reader, dressed in the finest camo kit money can buy. Despite this glaring omission, there?s plenty to interest anyone with a passion for things sporting and military ? if you like camouflage.
Personally, I find it hard to dislike any exhibition that displays a poster from World War II of a hidden artillery crew under netting with the politically incorrect request to ?Baffle the Hun!? Equally, an hour or two is never wasted when you can peruse photographs captioned with things such as, Photograph of sniper heads being made by French women in a British camouflage workshop. However, visitors expecting an entirely military show will certainly be perplexed by the first exhibit ? a camouflage jacket and skirt by the Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto. It?s that sort of event, but stay with it because in betwixt the fashion bits you?ll find some fascinating stuff.
The first dedicated camouflage unit was set up by the French Army in 1915. This pioneering body, which comprised mainly artists, used Cubist techniques to hide equipment and make uniforms less visible. On display in the IWM are the first known examples of camouflage uniforms. These hand-dyed or painted uniforms were designed by French camoufleur Eugene Corbin, one of the founders of modern camouflage. The uniforms include a kepi(cap), cover jacket and cape for snipers, and formed part of a series of experiments conducted by Corbin.
Both Corbin and fellow artist Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scevola had experimented independently with painting sections of canvas with irregular, coloured shapes and suspended them from guns. The patterns broke up the shape of the guns making it harder to identify them from the air. This technique became known as ?disruptive pattern?. Members of the French camouflage section wore their specially designed chameleon armband with pride.
The work of the French camouflage units prompted the establishment of British camouflage teams who also employed artists. Some of the most dramatic exhibits from this period are the original dazzle plans and ship models from the museum?s collections. Dazzle, the brainchild of marine painter Norman Wilkinson in 1917, was intended to confuse German U-boat commanders as to the speed and course of a ship. Wilkinson realised that an object as large as a ship could not be hidden. Instead, he aimed to make it difficult for a submarine commander to judge a ship?s shape, size and course through the use of violent colour contrasts and bold designs. I made a mental note to try to adapt my car using this painting technique to fool traffic wardens.
Naturalists had already recorded and described the biological forms of concealments and disguise. Before and during World War I and World War II, they played an important role when it came to camouflage techniques. In the late 19th century, Edward Poulton described two ways in which animals had evolved camouflage or ?protective colouration?. The first was concealment ? hiding or blending into the landscape. The second was mimicry ? pretending to be something else.
The American artist Abbott H. Thayer also identified two important principles of concealment in animals ? disruptive colouration and countershading. Thayer was the first to propose that such devices might be applied to the concealment of soldiers and weaponry. The British zoologist Hugh Cott built upon Thayer?s theories and during World War II attempted to apply them through his work as a camouflage officer.
Readers of ST will relate to the use of decoys in the field, but the decoys in this exhibition were rather different. In the pub, your friendly pigeon shooter would probably not claim that his patterns were used to ?trick enemies into making false assessments of the strength, position or composition of opposing forces, to divert them and to fool them into attacking fake targets?, but the sentiments are the same.
During World War I, camouflage units concentrated on the production of fake observation posts and lifelike dummy heads created by the sculptor Henry Bouchard, which were popped up above the trenches to draw enemy sniper fire. In World War I, dummies and decoys were used in some of the most ingenious strategic deception schemes ever devised. They were manufactured on an industrial scale to represent not only troops and equipment but also airfields, factories and even towns. The North African and Middle East campaigns bore witness to phantom armies of dummy tanks, artillery and men, supported by dummy railheads and pipelines, all intent on duping Italian and German forces.
From World War II onwards, modern inventions, such as radar, infrared, thermal imaging and satellite reconnaissance, meant that visual concealment was no longer enough for the soldier, but it was enough for the sportsman.
The late, great Solway goose guide Peter Blackburn did not reckon much to camouflage clothing for the shooting man. He once told me briskly that, ?If you stand still boy, the geese will come close enough to sit and defecate on you.? Fairenough, but I was still intrigued by the various types of intricate netting on display. I would, however, be failing in my duty to report that Country Gun?s pigeon hide made from women?s tights did not make it into the exhibition.
The fake trees with armoured steel cores enabled observers to watch the enemy unseen. The trees were exact copies of those from which the foliage had been stripped by shell blasts and once constructed they were moved out into the battlefield during the night. Hiding inside, fake trees suddenly started giving me strange ideas for woodland stalking, so I moved on to the gillie suits.
The section on gillie suits correctly notes the origin of the name and that snipers were mainly from rural areas, men who drew upon their practical hunting traditions and experiences. A gillie suit is a formidable item of clothing, which makes a sniper invisible from 10ft away. It also makes him look like Chewbacca on a bad hair day, but that?s not his primary concern.
Passing the dozens of different international camouflage uniforms, the visitor suddenly comes face to face with a giant video screen showing a film that juxtaposes soldiers in combat zones with scantily clad models on the catwalk ? I thought I?d seen those camouflage knickers somewhere before. Then the exhibition all goes a bit weird, with paintings by Andy Warhol and designer outfits by Jean Paul Gaultier. Happily, though, the majority of exhibits show the sort of things you?d expect to find at an exhibition dedicated to camouflage. If you find yourself in London, it?s well worth a visit. Now, if I can just find my way out?
The Camouflage exhibition is at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ. It is open daily from 10am to 6pm, until 18 November. Prices: adults £7, concessions £6, children free. Pre-booking for groups is essential. For more details, tel (020) 7416 5320
or visit www.iwm.org.uk