Editor’s note (4/2/2017): This week marks the 100-year anniversary of the U.S. entry into the First World War. Scientific American, founded in 1845, spent the war years covering the monumental innovations that changed the course of history, from the first tanks and aerial combat to the first widespread attacks with chemical weapons. To mark the centennial, we are republishing the article below and many others. For full access to our archival coverage of the Great War sign up for an All Access subscription today.
Reported in Scientific American, This Week in World War I: February 6, 1915
The archetypical historical scene from World War I involves straight-ahead charges of huge numbers of soldiers against masses of artillery and machine guns. But those fighting the war also needed to be adept at the art and craft of subtlety, feint and deception.
In the war at sea, ships were hard to hide, even in the vast Indian Ocean. When war was declared between Britain and Germany, the German light cruiser Emden, under the command of Karl von Müller, was ordered to attack Allied shipping. Trickery and deception have always been a tradition of naval warfare (and its close cousin, piracy). In an ocean where most British ships had either two or four funnels (smokestacks), the three-funnel Emden hit upon a simple ruse—one that enabled the ship to steam unmolested into the harbor of Madras (now Chennai) on the evening of September 22, 1914. The ensuing half hour bombardment caused little material damage to the British but was a significant blow to their prestige in the Far East:
“In the present war these traditions of the sea [trickery] have been not only employed to meet the requirements of steamers, but employed on a more elaborate scale. The German cruiser ‘Emden,’ for example, had three smokestacks. Because of them she was easily identified. To make recognition more difficult—necessary because of her commerce-destroying activities—her captain gave her a fourth dummy smokestack mounted immediately behind the foremast. Thus disguised, she must have fooled some of the ships which she captured and sank.”
In the opening weeks of World War I, aerial reconnaissance, photography and wireless radio had stripped away the cover of distance and terrain that armies had traditionally used to cloak themselves. Military uniforms had changed to blend in with the terrain after the advent of smokeless powders and high-powered rifles. Anything that stood out to prying eyes could either become a target or could give away position, strength and movement. Here’s one trick from the German army, which used motor transport but relied heavily on horses during the war:
“The agents of the warring European powers entrusted with the purchase of horses have instructions to reject white and other conspicuously colored animals. But since the number of horses whose coats are not too glaring is necessarily limited, they cannot be too particular. The Germans have hit upon the idea of dyeing the coats of white cavalry horses, so that they may meet the military requirements that Nature had failed to observe.”
Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918 on how soldiers and armies adapted to the needs of the new war. It is available for purchase at www.ScientificAmerican.com/wwi