The use of camouflage in the First World War took many forms, among them, camouflage trees. 

A camouflage tree was an observation post made from a hollow metal cylinder, which was camouflaged to resemble a dead tree.

Camouflaged observation posts were highly valuable during the First World War. Troops were locked in trench warfare and needed a solution to help track enemy movements without being seen, while also being protected should they come under enemy attack. 

The first British armoured tree was erected in March 1916. Follow the journey of one of the most unusual items in our collection, from its creation and use in the First World War, to its conservation and return to our First World War Galleries at IWM London

The camouflage tree

The First World War 'camouflage tree' – a metal observation post made to look like a pollarded willow
© IWM FEQ 854

This is a First World War period 'camouflage tree'. The tree was used as an observation post and was made to resemble a pollarded willow tree. 


A need to see without being seen

Construction of dummy tree as an observation post.
© IWM Q 17809

During the First World War, both sides on the Western Front became locked in trench warfare. These conditions made it very difficult to observe enemy movements and meant protected observation posts were very valuable. Camouflage meant observers could see without being seen and an armoured tree would protect the observer from enemy fire.


Artist's sketch

An artist's sketch.
© IWM Art. IWM ART 16369

The British Army erected their first armoured tree in March 1916. To build the trees, a military artist would first choose a tree to sketch in no man's land.


The replica

Plan of a dummy tree observation post.
© IWM Q 17811

This sketch was then used to build an exact hollow replica with a steel core.


Erecting the first camouflage tree

A group of British soldiers erecting a 'camouflage tree' under the cover of night. Two men stand at the base, guiding the trunk in to the hole in the ground, while another three men are visible supporting the upper portion of the trunk. There are two men standing to the side, looking on at the task in hand, and another man crouched in the foreground.
© IWM Art. IWM ART 6476

Under the cover of darkness, the original tree would be cut down and the new metal tree put up in its place.


Protected in plain sight

A model of a sectioned observation post with an artillery observer. The tower is disguised as a tree.
© IWM Q 31465

The observer could then crawl in and watch the Germans in full view, while protected by the tree's steel core.

Leaving the museum


Please note: This video contains instrumental sound only.

The camouflage tree joined our collection in 1918 and it's one of our most unusual items. As we began transforming IWM London in 2012, the tree had to be carefully removed from the galleries.

"It is made out of a central column of steel which is wrapped in a skin made of pieces of sheet iron and on top of this sheet iron is a layer of plaster, wood, paint and other materials to create the camouflaged effect of a willow tree.

To clean the observation post I've hoovered it using a vacuum cleaner that has variable suction and also with a very soft paint brush I'm lifting the dirt off and then catching it in the Hoover.

Once I've hoovered and dry-cleaned the whole object, I have to choose the adhesives that I'm going to use to consolidate the surface quite carefully. When we're consolidating the surface we use a variety of different conservation grade adhesives and these don't yellow or have good properties for their long term use.

We mix up our own adhesives and we do that in the lab using different solvents depending on the object that we're working on. We also have a variety of different adhesives we can choose from and it depends on how flexible they are, whether they're glossy or matte and these are all things that we consider when choosing the correct adhesive.

To consolidate the surface means to secure any of the loose parts that are sitting on top of the metal. So that means using a conservation grade adhesive that is quite weak, washing it into the surface underneath the material in order to fix it back down onto the substrate, which is the iron.

There's different sections of metal everywhere and some of them are riveted together, some of them have been screwed together, so it's a very organic construction and that's quite interesting as a conservator to see how they've made this object. I quite like the random little bits of wood that have been nailed on as well, a lot of them move a little bit and there's a lot of material stuck to them. It just makes it quite an interesting object to really properly investigate and record what it is actually made out of. And being able to look at it really closely enabled us to find out a lot more about this object.

I really like it, it's a really cool object."

Conserving the camouflage tree

While work continued on the new galleries, the camouflage tree was cleaned and conserved by our Conservation team.

Please note: This video contains instrumental sound only.

A new home in the First World War Galleries

As we prepared for re-opening in 2014, the camouflage tree was returned to the museum, bringing its journey to an end. You can see it now in the First World War Galleries at IWM London. 

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