The ancient Greeks made the Trojan Horse the most famous disguise of all time, which, as we've noted before, was a mind-blowing achievement in propaganda -- no one would really try to sneak past enemy defenses inside a huge wooden horse. No, in real life, armies have much, much stupider methods. Like ...
During World War I, both sides sat in trenches for literally years on end, blasting away at each other until the terrain in between them came to resemble a barren, post-apocalyptic wasteland. This created a problem: How do you sneak out toward the enemy trenches without being seen when you've already obliterated everything around you until the entire landscape is just a flat expanse of charred dirt and corpses? Well, the French army had a perfect way to solve this: Disguise yourself as a dead thing.
The idea came when a horse broke loose, ran wildly toward the German trenches and got shot in what was probably the animal version of suicide by cop. "Hmmm," somebody said, "look at that horse carcass -- you could almost hide a dude inside one of those." Of course, hiding a soldier in the actual carcass would be crazy. No, they did the sane thing and built a hollow papier-mache replica of the dead horse, with a gun port elegantly situated in its anus.
Sometimes war has a dark grandeur. This was not one of those times.
After dark, a group of men sneaked out into no man's land right up near the German trenches, dragged away the dead horse and replaced it with the model with a sniper inside. He also had a telephone wire that ran back to his own trenches so he could send back reports of German movements.
They kept this up for three days before some German soldier just happened to spot a man climbing out of the dead animal they'd shot a few days before, probably thinking it was giving birth to him, like in that Ace Ventura sequel. Still, they destroyed the decoy, which didn't stop the French from trying it again a few more times.
Some attempts were better than others.
Meanwhile, at sea during the same war, German U-boats were wrecking most of the Allied merchant fleet. The British noticed that the subs stayed far away from any ships that could actually shoot back, so it made sense to disguise the warships as small merchant ships. They also noticed that the subs surfaced when they attacked, so the idea was that they could lure the Germans to what looked like an easy target, then blow them to smithereens when they broke the surface. This was not by itself a particularly crazy idea.
But this disguise had to be convincing, by golly! Historians have written entire books about the British "genius for deception." They had a reputation to uphold, so this is where things got downright weird. The sailors donned costumes, so they wouldn't look like military when viewed through a periscope. Some of them dressed as women and walked around on deck snuggling with other dudes. Some dressed with fake parrots, or in blackface.
"It looks great, man. No way this offends literally everyone in the future."
They even choreographed elaborate displays where once a U-boat was spotted, they would act like panicked civilians and begin to abandon ship while making a show of running into each other and tripping and falling. Some crews would even jump into the lifeboats and pretend to accidentally leave someone behind, and he would stand on the railing screaming for them to come back and get him.
Meanwhile, guns were hidden all over the ships, behind normal-looking hatches, inside shipping crates, under fake smokestacks, behind false walls and inside fake lifeboats. Once the unsuspecting U-boat surfaced for the easy kill, the captain pulled a lever, all the trapdoors would open and guns would point out the sides and blow the baffled Germans to hell. Or that's how they tell the story anyway. You know how war stories are.
"-- and then I cock-slapped the entire 4th Panzer division across the Rhine."
Oh, and apparently at least 70 German submarines actually fell for this, and 14 of them were sunk, making cross-dressing sailors the seventh leading cause of death for WWI German submariners.
And the second leading cause of questioned sexuality.
Near Messines in Belgium in 1917, the Germans decided that they needed to spot artillery across a little patch of forest called Oosttaverne Wood, which was a pretentious name for a cluster of a hundred or so dead trees surrounded by mud and more dead things.
It's like a crop circle of sadness.
A spotter couldn't hide in the branches of a dead tree (it's easy to spot a guy when there are no leaves), and they had no fake horse corpses around. So, the Germans took some sections of steel pipe and built a 25-foot-tall armor-plated fake tree. It had bark made of painted iron. A soldier climbed inside and had a little seat and a tiny window to look out of and spy on the Brits.
Our guess would be that he spent a ton of time jackin' it. You'd have to, right?
Since a dead tree suddenly growing out of nowhere overnight would have looked suspicious, the Germans had to wait until nightfall and cut down one of the real trees. With artillery firing the whole time so the Brits wouldn't hear the axes, they cut it down and set up the fake tree in its place. It's the kind of disguise that, say, Elmer Fudd wouldn't catch, but you'd think one of the soldiers peering through binoculars on the other side would notice it eventually.
You'd be wrong -- the tree sat undetected for months, until the Brits tunneled under the German lines and blew up their trenches from below, like the opening scene of Cold Mountain, except 19 times over. Even then, the hollow tree was so well hidden that even though they were in control of the area and camping right next to it, no Allied soldiers noticed it for seven freaking months.