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Army Cadets Experts Explain the History of Camouflage

Army Cadets Experts Explain the History of Camouflage

14 June 2022

The history of camouflage use by humans is relatively recent. Camouflage is crucial in nature, both for hunting and for surviving being hunted. Almost all animals have evolved to use some kind of camouflage: chameleons have the ability to change the colour of their skin to match their surroundings; polar bears have white fur to hide them against the snow, and to avoid predators, stick insects have evolved to resemble – you guessed it – sticks. But what about humans?

The History of Camouflage: Ancient Times

Camouflage has been used in various forms for millennia. Before he came, saw and conquered Britain, Julius Caesar sent spy ships to gather information about the landscape. These ships were coloured blue and green (as well as the uniforms of the sailors aboard), to help disguise them from watchful eyes along the shoreline.

It was many hundreds of years, however, before camouflage became the norm in combat. For most of human history, combat was hand-to-hand. This meant there was little use for body camouflage, as soon or later opposing armies would meet face to face – and in the midst of a battle, you really needed to know who it was you were swinging your sword at. In fact, for many centuries the polar opposite of camouflage was the norm: knights and warriors would wear identifiable colours and patterns so they could discern friend from foe.

It wasn’t until the mid-1700s that camouflage began to appear. Firearms had been invented before this point, but a musket’s range was terrible, and their accuracy even worse. They were slow to reload, too, so battles were more of a ‘fire one shot and then sprint madly into the midst of it’ affair, rather than extended exchanges of small arms fire. By the eighteenth century, however, rifles had developed a longer range, and early British rifle units began to wear dark green uniforms to make them harder to distinguish.

640px British old infantry uniforms

British Army Camouflage History

Despite the early adoption of dark green colours, it took a long time for the wearing of camouflage to spread to the rest of the military. In 1848, India, the British Corps of Guides developed the use of dust-coloured uniforms to better conceal themselves as they navigated the hot backdrop of the country. These uniforms became known as ‘khaki’, an Urdu word meaning dust-coloured, which itself is derived from the Persian khak, meaning soil or dirt.

Even then, it took several more decades for the use of camouflage to become widespread. Despite the use of khaki in India, during the First Anglo-Boer war in 1880, British troops continued to wear their iconic scarlet uniforms. The Boers, on the other hand, used guerrilla tactics: staging ambushes in terrain they were innately familiar with and wearing tan-coloured uniforms to avoid alerting British troops to their presence until it was too late. It was, unsurprisingly, not too difficult for a Boer marksman to pick out a target when they were all dressed in flaming red jackets.

This forced a change in tactics, and by 1902 the British army had officially adopted khaki as the colour of uniform for all troops stationed overseas. It wasn’t long before other militaries adopted the same idea, with the American, Russian, Italian and German armies creating their drab shades of uniform.

The First World War

When the First World War erupted in 1914, France was the sole large military power still using colourful uniforms. This war was the first in history to use modern firearms on a colossal scale, and camouflage quickly became vital. Various painters and designers around the world were employed to develop effective camouflage patterns for troops on all sides of the war. The French troops were finally forced to abandon their brightly coloured uniforms too.

The First World War was also the first major instance of camouflage being used to hide vehicles, artillery and important positions in the field. Prior to this, aerial warfare didn’t exist, and the sudden appearance of spy planes meant that it became crucial to conceal as much as possible in order to maintain the element of surprise.

WW2 British Camouflage

The development of camouflage continued during the Second World War. New uniforms were developed for paratroopers to conceal them as they parachuted behind enemy lines and made their way through difficult terrain. The Italian, German, British and Soviet armies soon designed their own unique patterns for their troops and snipers, thanks to careful work by artists and architects. Many women’s groups worked to sew camouflage clothing, with organisations around the world contributing netting and other military camouflage items to the war effort.

British aircraft such as the Hawker Hurricane were painted on their upside with green and brown paint schemes, with the intention of concealing them not from troops on the ground, but from other planes – a potential lifesaver when dogfighting. Aircraft were also painted on their underside – albeit with a different colour – to conceal them from any prying eyes on the ground.

Camouflage was also used for misdirection. In the lead up to many pivotal battles and assaults in the Second World War, such as the Allies’ invasion of Normandy, false troops and tanks were set up at locations far from the intended attack point. This caused opposing forces to spread themselves thinner in anticipation of an attack.

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Modern military camouflage

Today, camouflage is no longer restricted to coloured patterns on uniforms and vehicles. With the rapid advancement of technology in the 20th century, the ability to spot enemy soldiers grew to include night vision, heat sensing technology, and even magnetic sensors and smell sensors. Naturally, in this game of military cat-and-mouse, there have also been developed new technologies to conceal soldiers from each of these sensors.

Hopefully you’ve by now picked up a little knowledge on how camouflage works, and you’re feeling pretty clued-up on your British Army camouflage history. If you’d like to learn more, you’d likely enjoy taking part in some outdoor adventures with the Army Cadets, learning key life skills, and maybe even donning some camouflage yourself!