Special Service for Artists in War Time

By Ernest Peixotto

[Scribner's Magazine, July 1917]

What can the artist do for his country in war time? What has he done in the countries now at war? In what direction can he exert his maximum of efficiency? For what work is he especially equipped?

Through my connection, as American secretary, with the Appui aux Artistes—an organization that has been helping the needy artists of Paris by providing cheap meals for them in studios loaned for that purpose—I have been kept in close and constant touch with what the art-workers have been doing in France. Even before I left that country, in the fourth month of the Great War, the artists were actively organized.

At the very outbreak of hostilities the younger artists and the students at the Beaux-Arts took their assigned places in the ranks of the youth of France, and shared the horrors of the first few months of war with such fine self-sacrifice and with such spirit and ardor that I have among my papers a single list of three hundred and fifty of them killed in action. Many distinguished themselves on the field of battle; many were "gassed" or wounded; many have come back physical and mental wrecks after long periods in the hospitals.

Two artists of the Appui were among those who acted as éclaireurs for what was probably the most deadly volley of artillery ever fired. "At Verdun, when the Fort de Vaux was cut off from the main French body by German cross-fire," writes a friend in Paris, "the situation of the garrison became hopeless and Reynal capitulated. The Germans seemed to think that, with Vaux fallen, Verdun was in their power. They prepared a triumphal advance in force. Platoon after platoon, regiment after regiment, rolled out of the trenches, formed in close order under their standards and began to sweep onward, cheering and singing, with their music at their head. Two men of the Appui helped to signal the right moment for the French guns to open. Those who saw it say that a great cloud of dust rose to an enormous height, hiding everything from view, and when it settled no living thing could be seen. The space between the lines became a lifeless chaos and remains so until to-day."

And so one might go on indefinitely with tales of military achievement connected with the artists of France. But they have done better than this. The French Government awakened, to the fact that the artists of its country should not be thus wantonly sacrificed; that there were very useful things that they could do. So it directed its efforts toward employing them in work for which they were specially equipped.

It sent the more vigorous ones to the front, with special permits from the War Department, to make sketches from life of scenes in the trenches, in the avant-postes; of life in the hospitals, in the prison-camps, on the battle-fields, and in ruined villages. Many were employed in making topographical drawings and those who remained behind the lines for the great propagandas. Some drew cartoons intended to inspire patriotism. Celebrated men like Leandre and Forain made lithographs for the public prints that stirred the feelings of the masses. Men like Hermann Paul and Abel Truchet, in terrifying drawings, depicted the horrors of war and the barbarities of their enemies; Steinlen sympathetically portrayed the grief and resignation of the poor bereaved women of the invaded regions; Abel Faivre, Willette, and many other well-known draftsmen gave their talents to the cause.

It was the artists also—Forain among the first-—who, at the very beginning of the war, first thought of dissimulating war material by means of protective coloring. To paint a cannon gray renders it less visible, but by no means invisible, and in these days of hidden warfare when and those men fight underground, burrowing like moles in the earth, all objects of military importance, everything in fact that would disclose their movements, must be carefully concealed from the scouting air-plane, with its hawk-eyed observer and its even more keen-eyed telephotographic lens.

Before every important battle nowadays flights of aeroplanes soar aloft, fight off assailants, and photograph as accurately as possible the enemy positions. These photographs, when developed and examined under a magnifying-glass, reveal every secret that cannot be carefully hidden. For instance, a bright highlight will shine along the top of every cannon and reveal its emplacement.

So the artist comes along with his paint-brush, paints a black streak along this high light and a gray streak at either side, with white paint where the shadows would naturally come underneath, thus reversing the modelling of nature and flattening the object out. A few colored streaks over this to confuse the form of the object and the cannon is effectually disguised even from the camera's all-seeing eye.

Motor-trucks, artillery-wagons, trains of cars with their locomotives are painted with broken patches of green in summer and with white in winter so as to dissimulate both their form and color. Aeroplane-sheds that stand as well protected as possible on the edges of woods but with open ground before them from which the birdmen can take flight, have their fronts and roofs painted exactly to match the trees behind them and thus become hidden in the forest and form an integral part of it.

This scientific faking has become known as "camouflage," a word derived from the verb camoufler that, in theatrical parlance, signifies to make up, to disguise. A friend of mine, applying its use to the army, translates it "The Illusion Department," and he says: "The sign of the aviator is a wing on the arm; that of the telegraphic corps is the braided forked lightning. The sign of the camoufleur used to be the chameleon, but this has lately been removed. There could be no better insignia for the camouflage than this—a disappearing chameleon." In his latest book H. G. Wells, writing of his visit to the Isonzo front, tells of a great battery that he came upon—"the most unobtrusive of batteries, whose one desire seemed to be to appear a simple piece of woodland in the eye of God and the aeroplane." And he speaks of a great gun that he found there—a sort of decoy gun made of logs to draw the enemy fire "with its painted sand-bags about it. . .and it felt itself so entirely a part of the battery that whenever its companions fired it burnt a flash and kicked up a dust. It was an excellent example of the great art of camouflage which this war has developed."

A friend writes me from Paris that one day, while driving through the forest of Saint Germain, he came upon a convoy going to the front—six big 155-mm guns "dragged by motors and all the personnel and ammunition tractioned by motor also; but automobiles of such very strange aspect. They were painted in chromes and greens and blues and purples to represent rocks and trees and leaves and shrubs, like scenery, so as to be completely dissimulated from the enemy. My companion said, 'Regardez comme ils sont bien camouflés,' and I said, 'Well, I am glad that at last they are making use of the talent of the painters in a practical way."

Last summer, just after the battle of the Somme, this same friend met a man he knew, the head of one of the great designing houses of Paris, wearing his uniform and proudly displaying on his breast his croix de guerre avec palmes, the highest military honor. "You are back on leave?" he asked. "Yes and no," was the reply, "I am at present on post near Paris. I am camoufleur."

Then he told some stories of the camouflage, among them this one:

Just before the attack on the Somme the German aviators were very active and made it difficult, except at night, to move large bodies of troops to the front. One road especially, leading from a small forest but lying straight and white over the fields, was closely watched. It became most important to get some big guns and many men over this road and into position by the 1st of July. So the camoufleurs got very busy and painted "three kilometres of white roadway bordered with green and when the enemy aviators arose to reconnoitre, they reported nothing moving on the road from Amiens while all day long, for five long days, a continuous line of artillery and thousands of troops passed under the painted roadway to take their assigned places for the great attack. So you see that we painters are worth something, after all, and that this canvas was the result of genie as well as genius!"

The possibilities of camouflage are quite without limit and its principles can be and have been applied to the concealment of men as well as of inanimate objects. To be seen, in modern trench warfare, is certain death. So the shining helmet of the day is painted a dull blue and the contending armies have all adopted uniforms of the color that they considered least visible. But these obvious precautions have been supplemented by other devices for concealing soldiers, especially those engaged in dangerous outpost duty. Blouses and hoods are provided and carefully painted by talented artists to match exactly the surroundings in which they are to be worn. Even the face of the soldier is streaked with bars of color like that of an Indian and he thus becomes quite invisible and is as effectively concealed as any wild animal lying under cover in the woods. This work in the outposts is, of course, the most difficult and the most dangerous that falls to the camoufleur. Its utility was at first doubted.

"General X of the Nth Sector had little faith in these methods, saying that no one could imitate a tree for purposes of observation that could deceive him. An officer of the camouflage told him that a tree in a line beyond had been erected for that purpose and asked him to name the tree. The general looked over the row carefully with his field-glasses and in a moment his keen and experienced eye told him that there was something wrong with the third tree from the last. And so there was—but that was just to fool the general. The observer was in the fourth tree from the other end. The camouflage has grown in importance since those days. In August, 1914, the number engaged in it was [censored]; the last reports I have received from the ministry of war put the number to-day at [censored].

"This department sometimes has to face very delicate and dangerous situations. It is, for instance, not so easy, with the Germans at a stone's throw, to crawl out of the trenches at night, remove the carcass of a horse and put an imitation in its place with an observer inside so that no one will know the difference in the morning. It cost Gabriel Ferrier his son; and now Ferrier himself is dead. Two good Prix de Rome men have been killed at it already."

Talented sculptors often model these fake horses and also these trees for observation purposes. The trees can be of vital importance. For example, an old blasted stump, torn by shell-fire, may stand between the lines in an advantageous position. It becomes necessary to post an observer at that point. The sculptor models a duplicate of the tree. The stump is removed at night and the duplicate is erected in its place, with the observer inside. He remains all day peering down into the enemy lines and, after nightfall, makes his way back to his own trenches.

This is dangerous work as you may imagine and only too often results in the death of the observer. Here is an amazing story that comes to me in a letter from a friend in France:

"Once after an attack and a slight advance of the French many German dead were left on the field. Among these was a large fat, red-haired German who had fallen on a bit of rising ground in a good place for observation. It occurred to the colonel that a French observer might be useful at that point. The camoufleurs therefore made a most beautiful, fat, red-haired German corpse—I know you are too good an artist to see any contradiction of terms here—and that night they crawled out with it to where the fat German lay. They threw a rope around the dead man, dragged him away, and left him behind a pile of rocks, and they then placed the French observer in his place with a rope attached so that they could pull him back.

"The next morning, to their horror, the Germans made a target of their beautiful corpse and shot bullet after bullet into it. Of course, they thought their friend was dead. That night the Germans sent up flares every once in a while and continued the shooting so the French could do nothing. Later on, however, the flares and shooting ceased and the French started to bring back their observer with no hope of finding him alive.

"They dragged him behind the lines notwithstanding, but when they came to examine him they found, instead of their dead comrade, a very irate and much alive German 'Unter-Offizier.' They crawled back to where they had left the dead German the night before and found only a Prussian uniform, stuffed with straw and cotton and capped with a red wig. The Germans, it seems, had been doing a little camouflage on their own account. The first German corpse wasn't really dead at all. The observer inside had crept out and made his way back to his own lines. The Germans had then captured the French observer, shot up the imitation corpse, and, between flares, the next night had put one of their own observers in his place. They say that for a long time afterward in that sector no corpse was comfortably safe between the lines and a big fat one had no hope at all.

"When I consider the actual results, relatively, together with the various possibilities and anticipations from a strategical point of view, I am unable to decide who got the best of this duplex camouflage: the Germans, who lost a live German whom they did not expect to lose while gaining a live Frenchman whom they did not expect to gain; or the French, who lost a live Frenchman together with a live German whom they might have gained, but who gained a live German while expecting to lose a dead Frenchman."

On the very day of America's entry into the world war a group of New York artists wanted to organize for war work. Some one proposed that we should raise a regiment of American painters. And the reply came: And what would you think of a regiment of American doctors—two thousand well-equipped doctors throwing themselves away as a unit in the trenches instead of tending the sick and wounded?

When the idea of the "camouflage" was suggested it was received with enthusiasm. Several of the men had even made careful researches in the domain of protective coloration, and one at least had been working with the full knowledge and approval of naval officers. The scientific disguising of ships at sea—whether merchant ships, destroyers, or submarines—is a branch of camouflage that has received but little attention abroad, as there have been so few naval engagements. Yet for us, here undoubtedly lies our most important and immediate problem—a problem that, before this article can appear, will probably have had many interesting solutions. Ships painted battle-ship gray are less visible than those painted black or white, but there are other ways of painting ships with vibrating colors that will greatly decrease their visibility. I have already heard of one submarine of our navy— But I must not make known secrets that should be carefully guarded.

I think I have told enough, however, to show that there is ample and excellent opportunity for the artists of America to emulate the exploits of their comrades in France and England. Work in the camouflage is the most efficient way in which they may serve their country—the older men staying behind to prosecute their researches and direct the work; the younger men, those of military age, taking their places in the ranks and putting into practice the laws of protective coloring—whether in the vivid, parched deserts of Arizona or New Mexico, or in the lush, green fields of northern France.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —


A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury