Military uniforms are generally designed to draw attention to the wearer by their colors, fit, and decorations. On the battlefield, drawing peacock-like attention to yourself will get you killed.

This is bad.

The idea of troops concealing themselves is nothing new, one may recall 300 Greek Hoplites concealing themselves inside a wooden horse that broke the siege of Troy in1250 BCE, but like the saying that tracers work both ways in directing fire on a target while also pointing to who is doing all the shooting, camouflage not only conceals you from the enemy but also from friendlies as well.

From Nature to Hot Zone

If there’s anyone that we should credit the camouflage principle, it should be no other than earth. From chameleons to leaf-tailed geckos to leafy seadragons, the animals evolved to adapt from the (sometimes) harsh life in the animal kingdom and get away from being another creature’s meal.

Mossy Leaf-tailed Gecko, Andasibe, Madagascar (Frank Vassen from Brussels, BelgiumCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In the 1890s, two British zoologists and an American painter worked together to translate these animals’ capabilities into military use. Sir Edward Poulton was one of those biologists, and he wrote the book The Colours of Animals in 1890, the first book on camouflage. Then, the American painter Abbott Thayer came up with two concepts of animal camouflage. As written in an article from History Extra:

“Countershading explains the lighter underbellies common to many animals – this cancels out shadowing from the overhead sun, giving the animal a flat, two-dimensional appearance. Disruptive coloration, meanwhile, refers to ‘splotchiness’ in an animal’s colouring; this visual effect helps to obscure the contours of its body.”


It was the French who first utilized the concept of camouflage and designated a unit specializing in it called ‘camoufleurs’ around 1914. Their tasks were to paint vehicles and weaponry to prevent the enemy aerial reconnaissance from spotting them. And so, the first camouflage employed was to hide vehicles, not people. To do this, they painted the military materials in disruptive patterns to blend into the surrounding landscape. Other nations followed shortly after. During World War I, the allied forces even came up with the razzle-dazzle camouflage pattern for ships. (If you want to know why they came up with that unusual pattern, read it here.)

Silver gelatin print depicting bow and starboard view of the passenger ship moored at the buoy and displaying wartime ‘zig-zag’ paint over the entire hull and superstructure. (Australian National Maritime Museum on The Commons, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons)

Time To Blend In

Before the disruptive pattern reached military uniforms, soldiers would wear brightly colored outfits. The French, for instance, was known to dress their soldiers in blue steel gray overcoats and red trousers and kepis— majestic, but that did not really do them any good. Some attempts were made by the Americans and British to subdue the colors of their uniforms by adopting a light brown or olive drab color but believe it or not there was some sense that this was cowardly and almost sneaky as a soldier’s uniform should boldly announce his presence on the field(It sounds nuts to us too).

And so, when the second world war started, nations rushed to develop patterns that the soldiers could wear to conceal themselves from the observers, something that would adapt from the changing environment. Not only that, these patterns, although they looked random, must also be recognizable to the wearer’s allies. The frogskin pattern, for example, was discontinued by the US army as it was often mistaken with that of the Waffen-SS. Different patterns for different vegetation were created, including those for the snowy terrains. And these patterns were a matter of life and death in the war field.

Simo Hayha from Finland, also known as “White Death,” was known to camouflage himself in the snow by wearing all white and sniping the ill-equipped, unprepared Red Army who were wearing green greatcoat like walking targets.

Painting Your Face Off

The effort in making sure that the troops are not spotted does not end with the vehicles, weapons, and uniforms. Your uniform could blend in perfectly with your surroundings but you still had a pale, round disk of a face for the enemy lin his sights up on.  The face, of course, had to be blended, too, especially if you plan to engage targets at the range.

Female infantry instructors apply camouflage face paint in preparation for a combat exercise during an infantry instruction course. (Israel Defense ForcesCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Depending on the environment that you’d be in, there are many different color options to choose from. If it’s a nighttime mission, of course, you’d want to smear your face with black paint or the darkest color that you have available. In the desert, shades of tans and blacks are the right way to go. A base coat is needed during the daytime, followed by a darker shade for the highlighted parts of your face like the nose, cheeks, and chin. The purpose of this was to conceal all those curved areas to eliminate any shine. The goal was to make the contoured human face look like it’s a flat surface so that observers could easily miss your grinning face as you spot them from your observation area (but don’t grin, they might see your teeth.)