Tromper l’ennemi: L’invention du camouflage moderne en 1914-1918
(Deceiving the Enemy: The Invention of Modern Camouflage, 1914-1918)
By Cécile Coutin
Éditions Pierre de Taillac et Ministére de la Défense, Paris, 2012
240 pp. illus. 300 b/w, col. Paper, 35 euros
Reviewed by E. Malcolm Parkinson
Emeritus Professor of History
WPI, Worcester, MA
Cécile Coutin is today the head conservator in the Department of the Arts of the Spectacle at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. She is already well-known for her pioneering work on camouflage and camoufleurs, “Les Artistes et la guerre,” which appeared in the journal Historiens & Géographes in 1988-89 and which forms the core of her book.
In one sense this book, Tromper l’ennemi (Deceiving the Enemy), is a French volume for a French audience. It portrays the French as the great fountainhead of camouflage in World War One, their masterly creations diffusing outward to set the Belgians, British, Italians, and Americans on the same path as themselves. Of course, she acknowledges exceptions, paying tribute at least twice to the originality of the British. The Germans, she states, excelled in camouflaging aircraft, no debt owed to the French.
Of the book, the early chapters are the best. Her opening chapter presents clearly the controversies over who originated various types of camouflage in France. After that chapter comes her view of the special contribution to camouflage of cubist artists on the one hand, and artists and craftsmen from the world of the theater and opera on the other. A highlight is her lively assessment of the help offered to the fledgling camoufleurs in 1915 by Louis Bérard, already an expert in creating and painting theatrical sets in his own workshop. Her third chapter traces the development of the French army’s workshops, which supplied the changing needs of the camoufleurs on the Western Front.
Less effective are the later chapters in which surprisingly short texts preclude examination of most topics in depth. What they offer is almost an inventory of camouflage as practiced by the French on land, sea, and in the air. The list of strange paraphernalia of that three-dimensional battlefield includes canvases and nets, weapons and vehicles painted in cubistic patterns, an ingenious variety of observation posts, dummies as whimsical as life-size cattle, and cleverly painted aircraft and ships.
Unfortunately, this inventory, almost taxonomy, does not offer the reader any systematic sense of the development up to the armistice in 1918 of these tactics and devices for deceiving and misleading the enemy. For example, the two brief sections in the text on the camouflage of artillery do not provide the reader with a systematic understanding of the complexity, and of the successes and failures, of what became one of the most consuming of all the tasks on the battlefields of the Western Front. Nor do the illustrations rescue the text because the text does not refer directly to them, leaving the reader to make his or her own connections between the illustrations and the written word.
This reviewer was surprised at the lack of any mention in the book of Chef d’Escadron (i.e. Major) François de Fossa, an artillery career officer who in 1915 practiced concealment from aerial detection on the battlefield. He became a key figure in the fundamental transition from the reign of the camoufleurs to the official entry of scientists and engineers into their realm. As part of that transition, the Section d’Etudes de camouflage (Section for Camouflage Studies) was introduced in November 1917, with de Fossa as head.
Coutin mentions the Section d’Etudes, but not de Fossa. The quarterly reports for 1918 of that Section, which were sent to a department within the Ministry of Armament, bear witness to the value not only of the research efforts overseen by him, but also of his own personal projects. Coutin makes no mention of these reports. Moreover, he was the main author of Instruction sur le camouflage, dated April 2, 1918, the only detailed manual the French produced in the war to teach a broad military audience about good and bad techniques in camouflage. Here Coutin mentions the manual but, otherwise, is silent.
Unexpectedly, a fine photograph shows de Fossa, unidentified, pointing out features of German camouflage close to the receding front in late 1918 (p. 194). And the bibliography includes an entry by the author “Ivan d’Assof,” the lighthearted pseudonym that he sometimes used when writing or exhibiting his watercolors (p. 225). Yes, the man chosen to make camouflage more scientific was himself an amateur artist.
Clearly, the question lingers as to why Cécile Coutin omits his name from her entire book, despite being unable to banish his presence.
This book will endure for its magnificent illustrations. Obviously the author has had almost limitless professional and personal access to an amazing variety of visual materials. Working in Paris has also allowed her to benefit from the unrivalled historical archives of the French military. Anyone with a general interest in the war and its art will enjoy the text and the illustrations. Anyone with a specialized or professional interest should buy this book for its illustrations, though for the documentation of her textual sources they will have to turn to Coutin’s original study of 1988-89.
E. Malcolm Parkinson taught the History of Science & Technology at WPI (Worcester Polytechnic Institute), Worcester, Massachusetts, for many years before retiring. His recent publication, "The Artist at War," about a leading American artist as camoufleur in World War I, appeared in the spring 2012 issue of Prologue, the quarterly journal of the US National Archives and Records Administration.