The Artist at War
Painters, Muralists, Sculptors, Architects Worked to Provide Camouflage for Troops in World War I
Spring 2012, Vol. 44, No. 1
By E. Malcolm Parkinson
© 2012 by E. Malcolm Parkinson
Every day, in the dim light of the Rotunda of the National Archives Building on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C., visitors gaze at the founding documents of the United States: the Charters of Freedom.
Intent on reading the documents, many visitors only glance at the interior of the dome above them.
There they see two murals stretched out along the curved walls just below the dome. In one mural, John Hancock receives the final draft of the Declaration of Independence from Thomas Jefferson. In the other equally imaginative setting, James Madison presents the proposed Constitution of the United States to George Washington.
The artist who created these worthy but fictional scenes in the 1930s was Barry Faulkner (1881–1966), born and brought up in Keene, New Hampshire, and known today as a painter of murals and designer of mosaics.
Large oil paintings, each 14 feet high by 30 feet long, the pair of canvases were rolled up and transported from Faulkner's studio in New York City to Washington in 1936. Upon arrival, they were attached to the interior wall of the Rotunda, thus meriting the title of murals rather than paintings.
Faulkner spent his entire career in the world of art, but during World War I he was part of an Army unit that used art as a part of combat. Faulkner became a camoufleur, an artist choosing to practice camouflage.
When the Americans declared war on Germany in April 1917, both the French (in 1915) and the British (in 1916) had already introduced camouflage sections in their armies. The Germans and Austrians also used camouflage, yet neither created a section devoted exclusively to it.
Though it had many casual antecedents in earlier conflicts, camouflage organized on a vast scale appeared first in World War I. These camouflage sections were variously responsible on the battlefields for concealment, hiding, masking, trickery, deception, surprise, disguise by cubist painting and disruptive painting, mimicry, and the adaptation of camouflage found in nature.
The range of men needed as camoufleurs and their helpers went well beyond artists such as painters and sculptors. They included other specialists and men in trades, among them architects, scene painters, sign painters, sheet metal workers, cabinet makers, carpenters, workers in iron, molders in plaster, stage designers, and chemists.
While Faulkner described his war experiences briefly in his autobiography, records in the National Archives provide the larger context of the evolution of American camouflage during the war. Those archival records include the documentation of the origins of the 40th Regiment of Engineers (Camouflage), the monthly and other reports of its officers, and the daily war diary of Company A.
Getting Formal Recognition: Not an Easy Assignment
After the declaration of war in April, Faulkner was among the immediate advocates for the creation of a camouflage section in the Army. He and Sherry Fry, a sculptor from Iowa, quickly began to try to co-opt the American artistic, architectural, and craft communities for the war. Calling their private society "American Camouflage," they quickly exploited their contacts, adding members rapidly in New York City.
By May the society comprised about 100 men, including the famous and the prominent: the painter Abbott Thayer; the sculptor Daniel Chester French, today best known for the statue of Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington; and the architect Cass Gilbert, who had recently designed the Woolworth Building in New York, the tallest skyscraper in the world at the time.
As advocates for camouflage, Faulkner and Fry succeeded, but they reached a brick wall in Washington, D.C., because they were civilians, and further steps would require support from the War Department and the Army.
The Army had its own advocates, but until July the chief of engineers assumed the Allies could furnish supplies and expertise for the first few divisions landing in France. The French refused. Faulkner and Fry were still pushing forcefully that month when an article by Fry appeared in the American Architect, deftly praising the French camoufleurs and announcing that American artists had already organized themselves and had "offered their services to the War Department."
The choice of journal was significant, for the Americans were more active than the French or British in enlisting architects into their camouflage ranks. Also at the end of July, the War Department received the report of a military mission sent to France, England, and Belgium by Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. It recommended that the Army Corps of Engineers organize a "camouflage park" with six officers and 260 men.
Consequently, Gen. John J. Pershing, commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Forces, quickly called for the formation of a camouflage company to join the land forces that would soon enter the European theater of war.
On the tricky question of classifying the camouflage group, confusion persisted. Referred to as 25th Engineers, Construction, and later as 24th Engineers, Supply and Shop, the camoufleurs eventually received their own regimental designation of Company A, 40th Regiment of the Corps of Engineers. Hence, from December 4, 1917, the camoufleurs enjoyed the status of a new regiment created solely for them. At last, it had been recognized that they could function effectively only as a separate group.
A New Problem: Aerial Photography
The first group of aspiring camoufleurs assembled for training at Camp Leach on the grounds of American University in Washington, D.C., by September. The artists among them had already been imbued with Thayer's ideas on "concealing coloration."Faulkner himself studied with Thayer in New Hampshire, and through his mother's family he was related to his artistic mentor.
Thayer claimed that nature used "concealing coloration" for defense and therefore self-preservation. Similarly, he argued, men could adapt patterns of color to conceal and hide themselves by becoming indistinguishable from their surroundings or by confusing a viewer.
Thayer also emphasized the protective value of "countershading," mimicking the coloration of animals whose undersides were of a lighter coloring than the upper sides exposed to the sun. When viewed from above, the dark side blends in with the background. When viewed from below, the light side blends in with the sky. Countershading, concealing coloration, and mimicry, Thayer believed, could be useful in concealing men and matériel in warfare.
Unfortunately for the Americans, who were scrambling in the fall of 1917 to train men to become camoufleurs on the western front, key changes in camouflage had been taking place almost continually since 1916 in Europe.
Ever-increasing emphasis was now being placed on defeating the new capabilities of aerial photography to record details of troops, trenches, artillery, matériel, and the sprawling array of fighting armies.
In 1916 nets, garnished with colored raffia or strips of canvas and placed as mounds over guns, had replaced many of the disruptively painted, solid canvas covers introduced on a large scale by the French in 1915. By late 1917, however, the new British flat-top nets of 1917 had become the most effective way to camouflage guns and their emplacements.
A Theatrical Touch Adds to Camouflaging
The man whom the chief engineer appointed as commanding officer of the newly created company of camoufleurs was Evarts Tracy, an architect in New York.
Like Faulkner and Fry, he had strongly advocated the introduction of camouflage into the U.S. Army. The tone he set for the company is revealed in his booklet, Camouflage, issued in late 1917. It was based largely on a printed lecture by Alexander Mackenzie, a British surgeon in the Boer War (1899–1902).
Mackenzie's views on camouflage grew out of his experiences watching the wily tactics of the Boers in fighting the British. After World War I, using the name Dr. Alister Mackenzie, he eventually enjoyed worldwide renown as an international architect of golf courses who applied his own camouflage principles to his designs.
Most of Tracy's pamphlet followed Mackenzie's lecture closely in stressing concealment of trenches and of snipers firing from them. Thus the world of Tracy's pamphlet harked back to the Boer War, before ferocious artillery barrages and unstoppable mayhem of massed machine guns.
As Tracy undoubtedly discovered later in France, the niceties of Mackenzie's landscaped lairs for snipers had to recede before a world of sodden craters, heavy artillery, and photographic plates. Faulkner's own activities at Camp Leach reveal both Tracy's emphasis on snipers at the front and his early omission of the reshaping of trench warfare by massed artillery.
Tracy knew well that his men had to prepare to deceive the prying eyes of cameras aloft and thus mislead enemy experts who pored over aerial photographs looking for any hint of Allied activity. They turned to the straightforward yet theatrical creations of the early years of the war, such as dummy guns or fake hollow animal carcasses to accommodate observers or listeners.
Faulkner and Fry helped to make dummy guns and to paint real ones with barrels that conformed to the requirements of Thayer's theory of counter-shading. But piecemeal information about the latest developments on the battlefield had reduced these men to taking their cue from the sensational reports they found in newspapers and magazines—regardless of whether these devices and inventions were still in use or had any proven value in the battles on the western front.
Some of the training exercises were undoubtedly worthwhile. For example, the construction of concealed machine-gun emplacements at Camp Leach was repeated by some of these men later in France.
The emplacement blended well into its immediate surroundings. For maximum impact from it, the gunners and the men who brought their supplies and ammunition had to maintain "camouflage discipline." That meant adhering to carefully laid-out approaches to the emplacement, making sure they could not be detected from the air, and refraining from dumping any debris that would betray the presence of the weapon and its crew.
But other training exercises resembled extravagant theatrical sets. In one, the men carefully constructed a dead horse and smashed wagon to simulate the destruction wrought by an exploding artillery shell.
Americans Set Sail for Europe to Learn from British, French
By the end of 1917, such complicated stage sets were rare on the battlefield, especially if the intent was simply to provide a place in the open where an observer could hide himself behind a simulated carcass of a dead horse.
Among the French, who created and used similar spectacular contrivances, theatricals of this type had become rare. To a large degree, even for the French, the hidden soldier-observer had been superseded by the aerial camera. Still, neither Faulkner nor Fry showed any awareness that conceiving of the western front as a giant stage for exotic props was merely to beat a dead horse.
What is clear is that with or without Tracy, the other camoufleurs, including Faulkner and Fry, had no chance of duplicating in less than four months what the French and British had learned both on the battlefield and in their experimental probings far away from the front.
Ordered to France in September, Tracy had not had time to carry out his experiments and exercises on aerial observation. Despite all the developments in aerial photography by the end of 1917 among the French, the British, the Germans—and the Americans—the first small band of men training and being trained in Washington, D.C., were not taught how to interpret aerial photographs.
No wonder that by January 4, 1918, when Company A, 40th Regiment, Corps of Engineers set sail from Hoboken, New Jersey, for Cherbourg in France, neither Faulkner nor Fry had ever examined an aerial photograph of camouflaged works on the ground. Learning by example from the French and British was to become an important further step in their training.
The disadvantages under which the Americans labored at the start of 1918 became evident when the Americans in January, the British in March, and the French in April published guides to camouflage. Because of their lack of field experience, the Americans filled more than half of their booklet with extracts and quotations originating in the Belgian, British, French, and German armies.
Clearly they did not intend to limit themselves to the experiences or doctrines of the French or the British, who were training and would continue to train, many American soldiers on the western front. Their tacit policy was to appropriate whatever seemed most promising, whether it came from the Germans or anyone else.
American camoufleurs Find Some Surprises
Faulkner's first assignment in France in January 1918 was to the First Division, which was training with the French First Army in a quiet part of the front at Seicheprey, east of St. Mihiel.
Though he had joined as a private rather than accept a higher post on entry—a decision he never regretted—Faulkner had been elevated to the rank of sergeant before coming to France. He was therefore not a camouflage officer responsible for the camouflage of a division until later in the war.
Working under the camouflage officer Lt. John Root, an architect, were Sergeants Faulkner and Harry Thrasher, Lt. Sherry Fry, and a small work detail. Faulkner and Thrasher already knew each other well. They had met when Thrasher had been an assistant at the studio of the sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens in Cornish, New Hampshire.
Apparently it was Thrasher who had molded the dead horse that accompanied the smashed cart on the grounds of Camp Leach. With Root guiding them, Faulkner and Thrasher usually looked after the artillery emplacements for the division's Field Artillery Brigade, and Fry took care of the machine guns and mortars.
In February 1918 the group camouflaged not only 36 artillery positions, many in open fields, but also machine-gun emplacements and command posts for the officers directing and controlling the firing of these weapons in any action.
More than one surprise awaited these newcomers.
First, they had not expected the relentless emphasis on artillery. Most of their time was now devoted to erecting and maintaining the camouflaging of gun emplacements and their accompanying dugouts, ammunition dumps, and posts for artillery observers.
Second, they had not anticipated the much lesser emphasis on painting; after all, the fewer the theatrical props and the larger the number of nets, the less the need for painting. Perhaps oddly, just when the Allies were questioning the protective value of the multicolored painting of artillery, the Germans began to appreciate its value and required new guns to be painted with camouflaging patterns and colors.
Third, from their camp in a wooded section of Washington, D.C., near the Potomac River, they could not have envisaged the enormous scale of the static battlefield along the western front and the destructive power of the arrays of concealed weapons spread along either side of no-man's-land.
Fourth, what must have come more as a shock than a surprise was the lack of authority they had to force men to accept camouflage. They could not issue orders to the artillerymen they were trying to protect. This problem had hounded the British camoufleurs for much of the war, and now the problem had appeared quickly among the Americans.
The camouflage regiment had to persuade and educate the men at the front. Not until March did the engineer Maj. Howard Bennion, commander of the 40th Regiment of Engineers, claim in one of his official reports that through "missionary work" his personnel had welcomed converts, some key, among the infantry and artillery at the front. He believed that a sympathetic attitude among senior officers was especially helpful in easing the task of the camoufleurs and their work parties.
A General Champions Camouflage for Artillery
One person who looked favorably on their endeavors was Gen. Charles Summerall, who commanded the Field Artillery Brigade of First Division. Bennion recorded Summerall telling him: "Camouflage is next in importance to ammunition to artillery."
While touting the excellence of the camouflage in First Division, Summerall also admitted to Bennion that only specially trained men could prevent the enemy from locating his batteries—an obvious compliment to the camoufleurs.
An unshakable and successful promoter of this novel branch of warfare, Bennion, a West Point graduate and engineer, fostered, molded, and directed the camouflage section of the American Expeditionary Forces from October 1917 until February 1919. As head of the camouflage group in 1917, he spent time in Paris, assembling a team of specialists to prepare for the arrival of the first group of camoufleurs, Company A, in January 1918.
Faulkner at first found his camouflage to be unwelcome. Experienced gunners initially scoffed at the camoufleurs and their work, dubbing them "window-dressers." The attitude that artists and their effete work had no place on the battlefield compounded the difficulties created by their lack of authority, a combination that had also appeared quickly in the French and British armies.
Yet the men soon embraced camouflage as a protector with an unjustified confidence that alarmed Faulkner just as much as had their previously cavalier attitude of disdain.
Among the Americans, Bennion noted that the machine-gun sections were the most welcoming of the help offered by the camoufleurs. Machine gunners on both sides of the front had learned how single-mindedly their opponents attacked them when they discovered their guns' positions. To these men, danger was a pressing peril that camouflage could mitigate.
After the Germans advanced west in the spring campaigns of 1918, Faulkner again found himself with the First Division when it moved to Cantigny in the region of the Somme. They were to help the French ensure that no more advances west could take place there.
Serving under another architect, Lt. Lawrence Hitt, Faulkner was delighted to be with his old group again, the Sixth Field Artillery Regiment. By April 30, he and the other two camoufleurs, who served the Fifth and Seventh Field Artillery Regiments, were ready to distribute materials as needed at their new camouflage dump in Rouvroy, west of Cantigny.
The type of camouflage Faulkner erected consisted of a net spread flat above a field gun. Painted canvas strips and other material attached to the meshes prevented an observer or camera from detecting the gun and any matériel beside it.
The uniqueness of this British flat-top net lay in its unusual garnishing. The net was least transparent in the center in order to hide the gun. Its transparency gradually increased toward the edges of the net to soften or obliterate any shadows that might betray the presence of the net from above.
Any multicolored painting of a gun, it was claimed, would confer no extra protection against visibility, for typically in a photo taken at a few thousand meters altitude a gun could not be seen; its presence was inferred from the paths and material around it or from any other clues that careless crews might have left for a camera to record.
Faulkner played his part in preparing the artillery of First Division for their surprise attack on the German lines beginning on May 28, when they pushed the Germans to the east of the ruined village of Cantigny. Earlier that month, architect-camoufleur Hitt designed and had constructed concealed emplacements for five antitank guns to counter any German tanks that might approach the American lines. Despite their heavy bombardment of the American lines, the Germans could not regain any of the territory they had just lost.
The Allies welcomed that unexpected small-scale success because on May 28 the British and French had been routed by a swiftly moving German surprise attack at the Chemin des Dames west of Rheims.
Ignoring Camouflage Brings Disaster for American Troops
Sometimes dire consequences sprang from a combination of carelessness in camouflage and the inability of the camoufleurs to undo irreversible damage. For Faulkner and Saint-Gaudens, the memories of August 11 were ineradicable. Saint-Gaudens, who had become camouflage officer for the First American Corps in July, made Faulkner responsible at the beginning of August for the Third and 32nd Divisions.
In August, as the Germans were in retreat, the carelessness of American troops in not following the recommendations of the camoufleurs brought about a disaster.
By August 6, the camoufleurs were horrified at the artillery crowded into a small valley. There the guns blazed as the Allies shelled the Germans north of the Vesle River. The camoufleurs believed the Germans must already have spotted any poorly camouflaged guns such as those of Battery E, 119th Field Artillery Regiment, 32nd Division.
Mounds, formed by nets garnished with green knotted burlap thrown over them and reaching down to the ground, were readily identifiable targets for the Germans. The Americans already favored the British flat-top net stretched horizontally above a gun, but sometimes these conspicuous mounds still appeared on the battlefield.
Making matters worse, Faulkner and Saint-Gaudens could not obtain aerial photographs quickly enough to show the artillerymen their errors. Years after the war, they were still complaining about the persistent lack of photographs whenever they had needed them urgently.
Even when the camoufleurs succeeded in forcing the removal of the most offending guns to the north side of the valley, followed by the reconfiguring of their camouflage, Faulkner awaited with dread the inevitable shelling of that small, packed, shallow valley. A target of tents, wagons, horse lines, kitchens, and latrines for the equivalent of about three artillery regiments, all tightly and thoughtlessly jammed together, awaited the Germans.
Disaster came on August 11, when the Germans shelled the valley intensely, earning it the epithet "Death Valley." In his autobiography, Faulkner refrains—perhaps diplomatically—from mentioning specific artillery units in that day's debacle.
Instilling and maintaining the camouflage discipline that Faulkner and the other American camoufleurs expected of the troops and artillerymen was a continual task until the end of the war. The Americans and the other Allies observed this discipline among the Germans, who expected and demanded that all ranks conceal themselves and their matériel on the battlefield and in their movements from one sector to another. They noted explicitly, though, that the discipline of the Germans deteriorated toward the end of the war.
In France, Faulkner had undergone a fundamental change in what he believed was appropriate and effective in camouflage. Theatrical props to deceive the enemy at ground level had been largely abandoned. The camoufleurs now strove to defeat aerial photography, and not merely in the immediate vicinity of no-man's-land, for airplanes could take aerial photographs deep in the rear of the battlefield and beyond.
Nets became more important than painting either in cubist fashion to break up the form of an object or to adapt the protective techniques of the natural world. Of course, cleverly colored sniper's suits were still used, but in the massive artillery battles, garnished nets now concealed guns and softened or obliterated any shadows they might throw.
Nets with painted or dyed garnishings made the riotous painting of most guns unnecessary, but in 1918 many of the guns sitting under nets were painted in that manner anyway.
Analyses and Experiments Versus The Battlefield
An enormous gulf separated the sprawling world of the front and Thayer's tidy analysis of the protection of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish through coloration, mimicry, shadows, and shading. Faulkner and other American camoufleurs had to pass beyond the studied experiments of a lone scout or sniper in colored, concealing garb, or of a carefully painted gun barrel that duplicated the colors of its environment.
The unanticipated realities of the intense fighting on a gigantic battlefield demanded an expansion—rather, a transformation—of the nature of camouflage.
What worked on a small scale did not necessarily work on the largest of all scales—a front running roughly 500 miles from the North Sea to the Swiss border and extending miles to the rear on either side of no-man's-land.
Much more complicated than Thayer had ever suspected were the simultaneous activities on either side of no-man's-land. By 1918, armies on one side attempted to assemble hundreds of thousands of troops, weapons, ammunition, and supplies for an attack without their enemy detecting such a gigantic buildup. Facing those armies from the other side of the dividing line was the vigilant enemy with observers on the ground, cameras in the air, raiding parties crossing into enemy territory to capture soldiers and documents, and with spies to boot.
Each side strove desperately to fool the other while each amassed all the pieces of intelligence and information it could glean, hoping to assemble them like a jigsaw puzzle to reveal a patchy but recognizable picture of the other side's intentions and detailed plans.
Trying to launch a surprise attack was not easy, whether with the British at Cambrai in November 1917 or the Germans at the Chemin des Dames in May 1918 or the French at the Marne in July 1918. It demanded a complexity in camouflage and all manner of concealment, trickery, deception, collaboration, and organization far beyond simple adaptations of Thayer's theories of concealment coloration or, for that matter, the French use of cubism.
Decidedly, by the end of the war the Americans had achieved more than breaking free of their own limited theories and the views of Thayer. They had also matured beyond being mere fledglings in the nests of their European mentors in the battlefields of Europe.
But Bennion had gone even further than one might suspect from Faulkner's activities, for by October 1918 he had begun to transform his camoufleurs into counterintelligence agents whose responsibility was to search for weaknesses that might provide information to the Germans.
And with Saint-Gaudens, who by the end of the war was the camouflage officer for Second Army, Bennion had distilled the experience of artillerymen on the battlefield—as they chose sites for emplacements, camouflaged their weapons, and fired their salvoes—into a set of simple rules to help them survive in the turmoil, danger, speed, and uncertainty of mobile, as distinct from trench, warfare.
The camoufleurs wanted to protect artillerymen and their weapons long enough to beat their enemy to the punch, although the Armistice came before they could savor any success of their simplifying scheme at the front.
Ironically, the goals Bennion had set for his regiment had begun to resemble more closely the German technique of making all ranks responsible for camouflage rather than having soldiers depend heavily on special sections with experts, the camoufleurs.
When Barry Faulkner returned to America after the Armistice of November 11, 1918, he resumed his life as an artist, painting murals and designing mosaics. But he did not leave the war behind him. He went back to Europe a few years later to some of the places where he had worked as a camoufleur.
Not a man to keep his art entirely divorced from the war, he designed two mosaics: one to adorn the chapel at the small cemetery at Suresnes, the only American War Cemetery in Greater Paris, and the other for the chapel of the St. Mihiel War Cemetery at Thiaucourt, about 10 miles from where he had served with First Division in early 1918.
As a former American camoufleur and as an artist creating memorials to those who died or were killed in the war, he did not let the irony elude him that, though he had designed these mosaics, a German firm constructed them.
E. Malcolm Parkinson is associate professor emeritus of history at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, Massachusetts, where he taught the history of science and technology. He recently completed a comparative study of the origins and development of camouflage in the armies of Austria, Britain, France, Germany, and the United States during World War I.
Note on Sources
This article was based on a broad range of camouflage records at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, which houses the records of the divisions and artillery brigades relevant to Barry Faulkner's activities on the French front during World War I. These include Record Group (RG) 165, Entry 310, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs.
Box 512 of this record group includes the indispensable Reports of Operations of 40th Engineers for 1917 and 1918 by Maj. Howard Bennion. Useful too are the war diaries for 1918 and documents on the origins and development of the camouflage company in 1917. More material on the evolution of the 40th Engineers may be found in RG 120, Office of the Chief of Engineers: AEF Historical Report 1917–1919, appendixes, boxes 150, 153, and 159.
Bennion's views on his camoufleurs and his record of his conversation with the supportive Gen. Charles Summerall can be found in RG 120, Entry 1780, Office of the Chief of Engineers: AEF Historical Report 1917–1919, appendixes, boxes 88 and 89.
Faulkner's autobiography, a compilation of short pieces he wrote over the years, was assembled after his death as Barry Faulkner: Sketches from an Artist's Life (Dublin, New Hampshire: William H. Bauhan, 1973). Revealing though it is, the brief segment devoted to his activities as a camoufleur does not form any kind of systematic history; he tends to think in terms of incidents and individuals. The lament of the camoufleurs, including Faulkner, at repeated failures to get aerial photographs in the field in time to show artillerymen their mistakes is expressed best by Homer Saint-Gaudens in his article, "Camouflage Service in the A.E.F.," Military Engineer 17 (1925): 223–224.
A printed version of Dr. Alexander Mackenzie's lecture appeared in America pseudonymously as [British Officer Skilled in Landscape Gardening], "Entrenchments and Camouflage," Professional Memoirs: Corps of Engineers, United States Army 9 (1917): 574–638. Evart Tracy's booklet based largely on that lecture is U.S. War Department, Engineer Instruction Manual No. 3, Camouflage (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1917).