Sketching World War I: A picture in camo

By Intern Joseph Brichacek
Sketch or artwork of plane crashing to the ground. Soldiers lay on the ground. Toppled fence posts. Dark browns, blacks, grays.

Joseph Brichacek, an intern with the Military History Collections Project, explores how camouflage blurs the lines between military utility and artistic expression. 

From colorful recruiting posters to oil paintings of historic naval vessels, the Art Room of the museum's Armed Forces History division is full of surprises. Behind the scenes, the objects in the Art Room help us interpret the actions and sacrifices of Americans at war through various media. But they're also compelling examples of art created during times of turmoil and hardship.

In World War I, George Matthews Harding was one of the eight artists contracted by the American Expeditionary Forces for the explicit purpose of illustrating the conflict. Harding created a series of sketches with crowded compositions, saturated palettes, and rich textures, all while operating with limited resources in a war zone. While his pieces might be deemed unfinished as works of art, Harding was able to create emotional weight in each of his sketches, whether detailed depictions of European towns and landscapes, or rendering smoky atmospheres with wash and charcoal.

Harding's work challenges common ideas about camouflage, and what value it has in the artistic realm. Some of his brightest and most colorful drawings are those that show the use of military camouflage in World War I.


George Matthews Harding. Cleaning Out Boche Machine Gun Nest, AF*25740, Crayon and charcoal on paper.
George Matthews Harding. "Cleaning Out Boche Machine Gun Nest," AF*25740, Crayon and charcoal on paper.

In the above drawing, a French tank spits machine gun fire over a German trench. The tank is colored in blue, red, and green, while the German soldiers wear helmets with geometric camouflage patterns of yellow, blue, green, and red. While the colors and patterns depicted in the painting were subject to Harding's creativity and whatever art supplies that he had available, the vibrancy of both the Allied and German camouflages portrayed is remarkable, particularly considering the relatively muted patterns we are accustomed to today.

Several World War I camouflage patterns developed in response to the advent of aerial warfare and efforts to mask the visual presence of airplanes, whether parked or airborne. Both sides of the conflict experimented with different colors. The French alternated between brown and gray colors for protection against airborne threats and dark violets, blues, and black for their nighttime bombers.

Each military had to strike a balance between hiding its vehicles and allowing them to be distinguishable to friendly forces. The German Empire used purple to identify its aircraft, incorporating the color within its distinctive "Lozenge" design named for its patterned lozenge-shaped color fields. Harding illustrated German lozenge camouflage in one of his more dramatic sketches.


George Matthews Harding. Boche Plane Falling in No Man’s Land of Verdun Offensive. AF*25738. Charcoal, pastel, and crayon on heavy textured wove paper.
George Matthews Harding. "Boche Plane Falling in No Man's" Land of Verdun Offensive. AF*25738. Charcoal, pastel, and crayon on heavy textured wove paper.

Here the yellow, red, blue, and green design accompanies the Balkenkreuz (a version of the Iron Cross) on the underside of a German plane crashing near a defeated German machine gun nest. 

While Harding's drawings serve as an introduction to World War I camouflage, they are best viewed as artistic and cultural artifacts rather than records of military practice. The sensational and triumphal nature of Harding's battlefield depictions makes his drawings more editorial than documentary. Overall, though, they provide information about the war, cultural perceptions, and what artists found compelling on the battlefield. Harding found art in the grim reality of war, adding unexpected vivacity through his depiction of camouflage.

Joseph Brichacek is a collections management intern in the Division of Armed Forces History at the National Museum of American History. Follow in his footsteps and apply for a museum internship