During the First World War, Allied soldiers needed a way to see without being seen.
Concealment and deception had always been a part of warfare. But during the First World War the proximity of opposing trenches and the advent of aerial photography made it much easier to detect enemy troops.
Armies on all sides needed to find new ways to hide from, observe, and deceive enemy forces. The pioneers of those techniques were the French.
The solution was the camouflage tree, a fake piece of shrubbery with an observation post hidden inside. The camouflage tree would allow Allied soldiers to keep track of enemy movements from a concealed elevated position.
The fake trees of the First World War
Voice over: “This might seem like a normal scene from Western Front in the First World War. But something is wrong. This tree is fake. Like many others, it was planted by Allied soldiers in the dead of night. A hollow replica of the real tree that stood there before. But why did they do it? What are they made of? And how did these trees help to change the face of conflict forever? To find out I spoke to Sarah Paterson, a curator at IWM.”
Sarah Paterson: “So, the First World War was completely unprecedented. It's the first total war mobilising the whole of society and it's very much an evolutionary process. What happens in 1914 is very different from what will happen in 1916 and 1918.”
Voice over: “Concealment and deception had always been a part of warfare. But during the First World War the proximity of opposing trenches and the advent of aerial photography made it much easier to detect enemy troops. While new weapons made it much easier to hit them. Armies on all sides needed to find new ways to hide from, observe, and deceive enemy forces. The pioneers of those techniques were the French.”
Sarah Paterson: “So, the French often came up with good ideas and they were the first to create a camouflage unit in 1915. Camouflage comes from the French verb 'to make up for the stage' and practitioners were often called camouflers. The work initially involved painting in a disruptive pattern to break up shapes and thus make them difficult to see. The British were always learning from the French and elected to set up a camouflage unit of their own.”
Voice over: “The unit was part of the Royal Engineers and was named the Special Works Park, an act of camouflage in itself. One of the unit's leaders was an artist, Solomon J Solomon, who helped them to experiment with some seemingly strange techniques. They built sniper nests inside of dead horses and they built dummy heads to draw out enemy snipers.”
Sarah Paterson: “So, the Royal Engineers was one of the most ingenious formations in the British Army. Those with artistic skills such as artists, sculptors, architects, set painters, were recruited for this new unit. As well as those with practical skills such as metal workers and carpenters.”
Voice over: “By this time the war on the Western Front had bogged down into a stalemate with a mass of trenches stretching from the Alps to the Channel Coast. To break this deadlock, each side needed to be able to see their enemy and read their movements. But the only way to do that was to emerge from the safety of the trenches to the dangerous and desolate 'No Man's Land' above.”
Sarah Paterson: “Height was essential for observation because the higher you are the more you can see, and the Germans usually occupied the high ground. Proximity to an enemy trench could help with other senses, such as hearing. Might you be able to hear conversations or recognise dialects that could provide information about the troops there? Information was so important for helping to build up a picture of what was opposing you.”
Voice over: “Allied soldiers needed a way to see without being seen. The solution was the camouflage tree, a fake piece of shrubbery with an observation post hidden inside. Initially a French invention, the camouflage tree would allow Allied soldiers to keep track of enemy movements from a concealed elevated position. It became Solomon's first project at the Special Works Park. But putting it into practice was very difficult.”
Sarah Paterson: “The tree needed to be bespoke because the enemy would be watching and looking for any changes on their front line. So, it was important that it looked identical. Which meant an artist drawing the target tree in no man's land at night. Dawn was the very best time to get enough light to do that, but it was a very narrow time window and the whole process was incredibly dangerous because you could be under enemy observation the whole time.”
Voice over: “One such artist was Leon Underwood. These are pages from his sketchbook currently on display at IWM London. These sketches were turned into a small model from which the full-size trees were produced and then returned to the Special Works Park. The best way to understand a camouflage tree design, of course, is to look at a real one and luckily IWM's First World War Galleries have had one on display since 2014.
The design began with a standardised steel cylinder joined in sections. Next came a painted canvas sheet and then small details made of collected natural materials. As you can see, the end result is uncanny. However, installation of the tree was even more difficult.”
Sarah Paterson: “Installing the trees would need to be done at night, with the original tree being cut down and replaced with the replica. It was a difficult task in the dark with large unwieldy objects and it was also incredibly noisy. Artillery fire had to be deployed to hide the noise. Solomon himself painted the installation of the first camouflage tree and you can see it's a beautiful painting, but very, very dark and you can see how difficult it would have been to install it.”
Voice over: “Once in place, the camouflage trees would remain in position for months, even years. Some had periscopes, telephones, or even weapons inside, allowing the trees to go beyond their intended purpose.”
Ivor Watkins: "A sniper would come up at night and he'd be in an iron tree, we found out after. And that was his sniping post. A very old stump of a tree. It was an exact replica and that was an observation post."
Sarah Paterson: “Only about 45 of these were known to have been deployed by the British and of these at least six were destroyed by enemy shellfire. From July 1916, a much greater emphasis was put on concealing gun positions than creating observation posts, which is an indication that perhaps they were better as a theoretical concept than practical implementation. They took an enormous amount of time, trouble and expense to create, could only be used on relatively quiet parts of the front, were very uncomfortable to spend long periods of time in, and it was felt they should only be used where this was the only possible method of observing a particular target.”
Voice over: “But the camouflage tree was just the beginning for the Special Works Park. Many more designs grew from its roots. With an army of French civilians working alongside them, the Special Works Park got very good at hiding in plain sight. A quick search of IWM's Photography collection will show you fields of armoured vehicles under camouflage netting, artillery guns hidden in thatched cottages, trees, and haystacks, dummy guns, dummy tanks, and even dummy railway lines. Camouflage was everywhere.”
Sarah Paterson: “The numbers working on camouflage grew enormously, including hundreds of French women employed to garnish camouflage netting with leaves and grass by 1918. Separate to the army effort, dazzle camouflage was painted on merchant ships from 1917. Many of these designs, each with non-linear stripes and curves in strongly contrasted colours, all of which were individual to each ship, were created by female art students at the Royal Academy.”
Voice over: “The fate of Solomon was somewhat different. He didn't get on with other army officers and quickly left the Special Works Park to set up a camouflage school in Britain. There he became obsessed with camouflage netting and was convinced that phantom German armies were lurking in aerial photographs. The evidence behind his theories was limited to say the least, but Solomon's impact on the art of camouflage is beyond question.”
Sarah Paterson: “Camouflage was a great success in the First World War. The camouflers came up with ingenious ideas that worked well and were continually refined. It also provided a psychological boost to the troops. Everything that happened in the Second World War had its origins in the first, and camouflage would go on to play an even more important role in that later conflict right from the start in 1939.”