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An aerial view of the Camouflage School at Kensington Gardens, taken in 1918. You can see the trenches dug on Buckhill and the Italian Gardens on the right of the picture. © Imperial War Museum Q95935

A map of Kensington Gardens today - the area covered by the Camouflage School is still called Buckhill and you can see the Italian Gardens at the north of the park.

What was the Camouflage School?

The first successful flight in an airplane happened in 1903. Just over ten years later, when the First World War broke out, it was clear that the use of aircraft would require changes in the way that wars were fought.

For the first time, troops and their movements could be surveilled from the air, giving the enemy advance warning of the Army’s plans of attack. The British Army had to find ways to hide what they were doing behind the front line.

‘Camouflage’ - a French word - was a new idea for many in the British establishment. To demonstrate the importance of camouflage in this new kind of war, and to experiment and develop the necessary new techniques for concealment and disguise, a Camouflage School was founded in Kensington Gardens in March 1916.

When the School was founded to explore the best ways to deceive the enemy on the battlefield, Kensington Gardens already looked like a warzone. Since late 1914, the Army had been using the park as a place to practise digging trenches - now it was the perfect place to work out ways to camouflage them from the air.

Those working at the Camouflage School came up with many different ideas for disguising, concealing and misleading the enemy. Some of these ideas never made it to the frontline. Others are still used by the military today.

Part of a network of trenches, dug by new recruits in Kensington Gardens in order to practise techniques of trench construction. © Imperial War Museum Q95944

“A soldier who goes to war these days without knowing how to dig trenches has about as much chance as a rabbit who is born without the instinct of going to ground.”

Extract from a letter on the subject of trench practice in Kensington Gardens in November 1914.

Experimenting with camouflage

Women in Kensington Gardens weaving camouflage nets. IWM Q17684.

Nearly 7.5 million square yards of camouflaged fish netting, tufted with plants, were put to use during the First World War. When cast over a tank, trench or building, the netting eliminated shadows which would give away the size and shape of an object when it was photographed from the air.

It’s claimed that camouflage fish netting was invented by Solomon J Solomon, a well-known artist and technical advisor to the Camouflage School in Kensington Gardens.

© Imperial War Museum Q95962

This photo is one of a pair. The other photo shows this sniper hidden in the long grass of Kensington Gardens which you can see here. In the second photo, he is almost impossible to see - only the barrel of his gun gives away his position.

The 'artist-officer' at war

The Camouflage School employed artists, set painters, theatre designers, sculptors, photographers and craftsmen to develop techniques for disguise.

With their experience of creating lifelike images on flat surfaces, painters had the skills to mimic tanks on canvas, while set designers, who were used to making hundreds of props for a show, thought nothing of creating armies of papier-maché heads to poke over the trench parapets and attract enemy sniper fire.

A gunboat painted in dazzle camouflage in 1918. © Imperial War Museum Q43387

CRW Nevinson, who painted ‘The Arrival’ shortly before the War began, used Cubist and Futurist techniques. Some people, including the artist Picasso, saw dazzle camouflage as an invention of those who painted in this style.

Inspired by nature

People at the forefront of the development of camouflage looked to nature for ideas.

The British zoologist John Graham Kerr wrote to Winston Churchill in 1914 stating:

“It is essential to break up the regularity of outline [of ships] and this can be easily effected by strongly contrasting shades … a giraffe or zebra or jaguar looks extraordinarily conspicuous in a museum but in nature, especially when moving, is wonderfully difficult to pick up.”

A gunboat painted in dazzle camouflage in 1918. © Imperial War Museum Q43387

The black and white stripes on this ship are intended not to hide it but to make it difficult for the enemy to identify its type, size, direction and speed.

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