An al-Fatah guerilla fires at Islamist militants in Ain al-Hilweh, Lebanon. In 2003, this cement-block shantytown was considered by many to be the single most important al-Qaeda base of operations in the Middle East. [Image: Middle East Intelligence Bulletin.]
a brief history of camouflage uniforms
The use of uniforms arose with the creation of standing armies. Whether for personal, regional, or national service, those who raised these armies recognised the need to distinguish friend from foe. For this reason they dressed their soldiers alike in clothes that featured distinctive colours and emblems.
Even after the introduction of firearms rendered armour obsolete, colourful uniforms remained in use. Few armies in history have been more gorgeously attired than Napoleon Bonaparte's Grand Armeé, which established a tradition so strong that it was reflected in the French uniforms of 1914.
Indeed, many of the armies that went to war in 1914 boasted flamboyant uniforms — with the noteable exceptions of Germany and Great Britain.
The colour worn by German riflemen of the First World War was feldgrau ('field-grey'). It was probably descended from the grey-green colour that was worn by German foresters and huntsmen, many of whom were recruited into the army. It was not intended to function as camouflage, however; rather, it was symbolic of their former occupations.
The colour worn by British soldiers was khaki. Like German feldgrau, it was not actually meant to act as camouflage, but was more a relic of colonial campaigns in India and Africa.
However, the First World War soon taught that these drab uniforms were much better suited to the conditions of modern warfare, under which concealment became just as important to survival as identification ever was.
Anyone who has undertaken military service should know the six basic factors that can betray any soldier's presence: movement, sound, silhouette, shine, shape, and shadow. Movement, of course, is a matter for training and extraneous sound can be reduced through discipline, while silhouette and shadow alike may be avoided simply by being aware of light sources. Even shine is relatively easy to eliminate, by smearing dirt, dust, mud, or paint onto reflective surfaces.
Of course all of these methods were applied, during World War One. However, soldiers were left with the problem of shape: that is, how best to break up the familiar human outline and make it less recognisable? No matter how good the solid colours — feldgrau or khaki —, were, in assisting concealment, they still lacked the disruptive element, which is crucial wherever there is available cover and ranges exceed those that are typical for built-up areas
Many ad hoc solutions to this problem were implemented during World War One and afterward. Yet it was the Germans, just before World War Two, who pioneered the widespread application of camouflage patterns to military uniforms. After much trial, the Oberkommando Wehrmacht (OKW) issued Heeres-Splittermuster 31, more commonly known as 'splinter pattern', in the 1930s. The SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT, renamed Waffen-SS in 1940) designed, trialled and issued its own distinctive patterns, not long after.
Although most modern camouflage uniforms have been influenced by these successful German patterns, few of them could be called direct copies. In fact, as more countries adopt or create patterns for their armed forces, it seems that camouflage uniforms are as distinctive as flags, and that they naturally continue to fulfil the original purpose of military uniforms — that of distinguishing friend from foe.
Copyright © 2005, 2008 Brad Turner. All rights reserved.