The British Camouflage Tree

The British Camouflage Tree

The British camouflage tree observation post. Image © IWM (FEQ 854)

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.

Designs for a camouflage tree

A page from the sketchbook GC Léon Underwood, an artist who served in the British camouflage section, Royal Engineers. Image © IWM (Art.IWM ART 16369).

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.

Constructing an observation post from a fake tree.

Constructing an observation post from a fake tree. Image © IWM (Q 17809).

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.

‘Erecting the First Camouflage Tree’ by Solomon J Solomon. Image © IWM (Art.IWM ART 6476).

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…

Watch a short film about conserving the camouflage tree.

3 comments
  1. Dianne Rutherford says: January 14, 20144:07 am

    Hi Lousie, these camouflaged observation posts are among my favourite things from the First World War. The Imperial War Museum’s tree is fantastic, a nice example of a pollarded willow. I love the artworks and photographs the IWM has showing how they were constructed. It is fascinating seeing how they were put together. The Australian War Memorial’s German observation post (tree) was also acquired in 1918, from Oostaverne Wood, north of Messines. Thanks for your blog post I enjoyed reading it. Regards Dianne

    • Louise Macfarlane says: January 15, 20144:00 pm

      Hi Dianne,

      Thanks for the feedback – it’s a really unusual object and as you say, the construction of these is really interesting. We’re looking forward to seeing it in our new galleries – hope you’re able to visit them when they open later this year. We’ll be posting a short film about the conservation of the tree in the next few days so stay posted!

      Best,

      Louise

  2. Andrew Schroeder says: January 30, 201412:27 am

    Hello Louise,
    Thanks for posting this and for the great video. I also have an interest in these observation posts, having conserved the one in the AWM collection. I saw the IWM tree on display in 2009 and, together with your photos and video here, the similarities of construction with those of the AWM tree are such that I suspect it is also British made.
    There are some photos of the AWM Observation Post in Dianne’s blog posts here: http://www.awm.gov.au/blog/2008/06/03/cant-see-the-tree-for-the-wood/ and here: http://www.awm.gov.au/blog/2008/09/18/cant-see-the-tree-for-the-wood-part-ii-the-baumbeobachte/

    Cheers,
    Andrew

Submit comment