The British Camouflage Tree
This British camouflage tree observation post is one of the more unusual objects in our collection. Its journey from the fields of the Western Front to display in our new First World War Galleries, nearly one hundred years later, tells us much about the way that the First World War was fought but also how its impact is still with us today in unexpected and surprising ways.
By 1915, the Western Front had become deadlocked. Both sides had failed to achieve victory and in a bid to outmanoeuvre one another, vast networks of trenches soon stretched across the continent as armies dug in to defend their existing positions. This made observation of the enemy – reading their movements and strengths – even more challenging. The art of camouflage offered a way to see without being seen.
Soldier-artists would select and accurately sketch a tree in no man’s land. This would then be used to build an exact and hollow replica with a steel core, behind the lines. Carefully and courageously, the real tree would be removed at night time and the replica erected so as not to arouse the attention of the enemy. An observer could then crawl up inside the tree and observe the enemy undetected and protected by his steel tree.
The French Army were the first to create an observation post from a fake tree. Their military camouflage unit, the very first in existence, was established in February 1915. Its ranks included artists, some of whom had been Cubists before the war, who pioneered the use of colourful ‘disruptive’ patterns to help conceal larger guns from being seen by enemy aircraft. They provided inspiration and guidance to the British Army and when they turned their skills to observation, the British were soon to follow. Under the supervision of artist Lieutenant-Colonel Solomon J Solomon, the British Army erected their first fake tree in March 1916.
The museum acquired this tree in 1918 and it is believed to be one of only two in museums in the world. The legacy of the work of these ‘camoufleurs’ can be still be felt today, from the uniforms of armies across the globe to high street fashions. See if you can spot it in our new galleries later this year…