What do you see? Some pretty ordinary old aerial photographs? Or an entire German army hidden beneath elaborate camouflage disguise?
First, meet Solomon J Solomon: a London portrait artist who made a living during WW1 painting posthumous portraits of lost husbands and sons, and who was an expert in camouflage. He was recruited by the military to help develop new methods of camouflage from a ‘Special Works Park’ in Kensington Gardens, a short stroll from his home. He experimented with draping various coverings over dugouts, guns and hangars to conceal them (see a tank with the Solomon camouflage scheme here).
But by 1918 he felt his efforts puny in the context of, he believed, a colossal German triumph of deception. While he had concealed the occasional gun or observation post, the Germans, he argued, had successfully hidden a massive build-up of men and material.
Solomon came into possession of some photographs of St Pierre Capelle and Sparappehoek taken by his cousin from a kite balloon. Close examination with his artist’s eye told him that the shadows were wrong, the fields looked odd for the time of year, and the landscape had imperfections, like an imperfectly executed sketch.
As an artist, he understood how colour and shade can detach a feature in a flat painting from its background. In a war, your shadow could kill you. When draping nets over an object it was important to soften the angles. The nets should not just be pegged around the base of the object, they should slope gently away.
He was told that no traffic had ever been observed on the road from St Pierre Capelle to Nieuport despite it being the only road to the front from Bruges. Of course night-time travel would go undetected, but to him it was clear that lengths of the road had been covered with painted nets to conceal day time activity. The more he looked the more he saw that the entire landscape was an elaborate hoax. Real railways were covered and decoy lines were painted. A few trucks were scattered in sidings, but these were just theatrical props on top of a busy railhead. He saw that large farm houses cast no shadows. It meant that huge canopies of netting and tarred paper had been raised to the level of the eaves and that the farm house was perhaps surrounded by a mass of invisible infantry and weapons. All that was visible was a row of haystacks in a field, the shadows, staying fixed as the sun traced its arc. In short, the Germans had been able to hide a whole army ahead of a major advance, Ludendorff’s spring offensive of 1918.
If we look now at his book, Strategic Camouflage, the black and white photos are grainy, the diagrams fuzzy and his captions are frustratingly terse and ambiguous. Was Solomon deluded? He was not generally believed.
‘Alas, I was powerless – and could only wring my hands!’ he wrote in frustration.
The Spring Offensive was real enough and involved a surprise attack by hundreds of thousands of German troops withdrawn from the Russian Front. It is a cliché of war that history is afterwards written by the victors. So it is that we do not hear at length of a German triumph of strategic deception. But Solomon received anecdotal evidence of net canopies being found intact after a German retreat, and some German writings gave them mention. So, perhaps he was right.
Look again at the photos. In the first, A railway line at St Pierre Capelle runs nearly horizontally across the picture and a few trucks stand as bold rectangles on the tracks. It was Solomon’s contention that these trucks were flimsy dummies and sat on top of the real marshalling yard which was covered.
In the second, The yellow rectangle draws attention to one of the features that Solomon saw. We see fields, a farmyard, a tramline. Solomon saw something different. This rectangle is roughly divided in half by a dark shadow which Solomon contended was really the summit of a very large roof or covering sloping away upwards towards the long side of the outline, and beneath which men or equipment could be concealed. The field and the tram line are a sham. The tram line, particularly, ends unconvincingly and was intended to take the eye away from the field.
Read the full story on the Ri Blog. Thanks to Laurence Scales for the research and writing of this amazing story. He’s a volunteer working at the Ri, and leads unique and eclectic London tours focused on the curious history or science, invention, medicine and intelligence.