How bizarre fake spy trees appeared in no-man’s land during WWI (and killed hundreds of soldiers)


Built using steel and wrought iron, these are no normal trees. They are camouflaged weapons of war used to devastating effect during World War I on the Western Front.  The bizarre fake tree observation posts were built to spy on the enemy after switching them under cover of darkness with real battle-scarred stumps left in no-man’s land.

With a perfect elevated position overlooking the enemy and the element of surprise, historians say the outposts were surprisingly successful. Both sides used real trees for observation, building ladders up them and sometimes viewing platforms. But O.P Trees  - or ‘Baumbeobachter’ as the Germans called them – were special. On the British side, artists in the Royal Engineers were tasked with meticulously selecting a real tree on the battlefield by measuring and photographing it extensively.

The ideal tree was dead and often it was bomb blasted. The photographs and sketches were then sent to a workshop where artists constructed an artificial tree of hollow steel cylinders. It contained an internal scaffolding for reinforcement, to allow a sniper or observer to ascend within the structure. Then, under the cover of night, the team cut down the authentic tree and dug a hole in the place of its roots, in which they placed the O.P. Tree.

Two O.P. trees captured in World War I. The tree (right) was taken by troops in 1917 and images of it are featured at the Australian War Museum


Observation posts made of lumber and sheet metal to look like tree trunks were among the disguises employed on the battle front to deceive the enemy

When the sun rose over the battlefield, what looked like a tree was a tree no longer. Instead, it was an enemy lookout tower.  The Imperial War Museum in Kennington, south London, houses several sketches and artworks depicting camouflaged trees. Among them is work by the artist Leon Underwood, who was one of the original camoufleurs. It also houses an original camouflage tree, believed to be the only one of its kind, which will be on display in the museum’s new First World War Gallery due to open in the summer of 2014.

Imperial War Museum historian James Taylor told MailOnline: ‘As far as we know the trees were surprisingly successful and none of them were detected by the enemy. ‘In 1916 the Germans had captured a lot of the higher ground on the Western Front and even the elevation of a few feet through one of these trees could prove crucial.’

Mr Taylor added: ‘The art and science of camouflage was really born in World War I and the French were the first to set up a camouflage team in 1915, mainly to disguise guns. ‘The British caught on later and were really tutored by the French.’


First World War artist Leon Underwood was one of the original camoufleurs and his drawings were used in the manufacture of camouflage trees


Leon Underwood sketched trees in no-man’s-land from which foliage had been stripped by blast and then designed the O.P Trees


The first British O.P. Tree is believed to have been constructed to a French design. Here, British soldiers from 331 Infantry wait to advance on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916

Mr Taylor added that the first British attempt at setting up a specialist camouflage team happened in 1916 and was led by Soloman J Soloman. He created the Specialist Works Park, a unit of the Royal Engineers that employed volunteer artists to crawl into no-man’s land to sketch potential trees they could use. Plasticine models were then created of the trees in a workshop behind the front line before a replica was made using a steel tube and ‘bark’ on the outside to disguise it.

The first British O.P. Tree was put up on a battlefield near Ypres in Belgium and it is believed there were 45 in total used by the British during the war.  The Australian War Memorial in Canberra also has images of an O.P. Tree believed to have been captured by Australian troops when they advanced in 1917.

Writing on the memorial’s website, Dianne Rutherford said:During the First World War fake trees were one method used for disguising observation posts on the Western Front.

‘This tree is from Oosttaverne Wood, also sometimes spelt Oostaverne Wood, near Messines in Belgium. ‘We don’t know when the tree was erected in the wood, but it could have been used by the Germans up until June 7, 1917, when the Oosttaverne area was captured by the British during the Battle of Messines. ‘It was hidden among a group of real trees in the wood and would have been difficult to spot as a fake – especially from a distance.

‘The exact original location of its placement in the wood is unknown, but after the Battle of Messines it remained in position in Oosttaverne Wood, behind the new British front line until January 1918, when the 3rd Battalion AIF dismantled it while they were stationed in the area.’

Source: Daily Mail

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