“Camouflage”

Camouflage is a story in the Strand Magazine for May 1917.

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It starts with a definition of camouflage as “a thin veil drawn over great events” and gives some wartime examples like “A great white road … concealed from the enemy lines by a hedge of thinly plaited twigs.” Then it adds

But perhaps the subtlest variety of all is the kind that men and women devise to screen their real emotions from each other and the world.

We meet “he” and “she”, two nameless everypeople. He has 24 hours embarkation leave before heading to France, so he goes to see her as fast as he can.

Their conversation is a list of clichés:

How lucky he was to be going to France, when it might have been Mesopotamia or one of those other unfriendly places! He had only known for certain that it would be France that morning. They always keep you in the dark as long as possible. Of course there were no submarines in the Channel – besides his sleeping bag was of a variety which guaranteed to keep a man afloat for eight hours. How adorable she looked in her new frock …

and so on.

They do everything they can to have an untroubled romantic evening together – but even at their favourite restaurant there is the troubling thought that the man who used to be their waiter might at that moment be “cruising the North sea in a Zeppelin.”

They keep up the cheerful pretence very well (and some of the dialogue is the sort of thing that Noel Coward would make his fortune from in the next decade – banalities absolutely bursting with subtext):

“That’s what’s so jolly about France, getting letters regularly.”

“I should have hated you to go anywhere else.”

“It’s a great piece of luck, the whole thing.”

He was at the door now, swinging it backwards and forwards in his hands.

“Splendid! And I’m awfully – awfully happy really.”

“Yes.”

Only at the last moment does the facade break down. He confesses his misery at being sent to France, and “there, revealed, were the naked sobbing souls of two young people, brokenly crying on each other’s shoulders, untidily knit in each other’s arms.”

What really interests me is the coda to the story:

It occurs every day. A trifling detail in the conduct of the war.

Ask any khaki-clad wanderer you may find in a South-bound express. The odds are he won’t answer you, but you will know it is the truth because of his silence, and because he will probably Camouflage himself behind the pages of this magazine.

This magazine. The Strand Magazine as camouflage. Hinting perhaps at an interesting definition of the role of fiction during the Great War? Implying that this was a time when to speak the whole horrible truth directly would not only be upsetting, but unnecessary. Both the people at home and the soldiers abroad knew enough of the horrors and the dangers. nobody needs to talk about that. So what fiction can do – sometimes by the repetition of clichés – is to keep up a consoling, positive surface, to maintain the camouflage of reassurance, although both author and reader are aware that it is camouflage.

Many readers would have taken this story as a conventional tribute to the bravery of soldiers, and of the women who are left behind. But Roland Pertwee is also telling that “khaki-clad wanderer” on a South-bound express (the one who is hiding behind the magazine) that he knows how very difficult it is to go back, and how very inadequate language is in the face of the the horror of war.

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