A land of false trees

Richard Maddox

large_damaged_trees_ © IWM (Q 1548)A

A panoramic view of the battlefield at Beaumont Hamel, November 1916. The hill opposite was dotted with houses and trees before the Somme Battles. Image © IWM (Q 1548). Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205124468

DURING THE FIRST WORLD WARN- with the Western Front immobile and opposing troops immobile in around 2,500 kilometres of trenches from the Swiss border to the North Sea – every advantage was sought and tenaciously held.

Artillery bombarded enemy positions in an effort to force a way through opposing defences and onward to a victory.

Later tanks and poisonous gas would join the explosive shells that are still seen piled in the corners of French and Belgian fields as part of the ‘Iron Harvest’ – made more deadly by a century or rust and corrosion.

The need for intelligence – information on what the other side were doing, where a weakness in defences could be seen and attacked, lines broken and a victory planned – saw anything with height become an advantage to the side that held it and a target for those that did not.

large_ Germans-in-Tree-© IWM (Q 93517)a

A undated photograph of German sentries up a tree, probably men of the German 5th Field Artillery Regiment von Podbielski (1st Lower Silesian) – Feldartillerie-Regiment von Podbielski (1. Niederschlesisches) Nr. 5. Image © IWM (Q 93517). Original source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205336852

Nothing was ignored.

Man-made structures like church towers and hillside villages or the very hills and woods themselves – were coveted and then obliterated as the wounded landscape gradually took on the look we associate with the Western Front during World War One.

large_ wrecked_tanks_© IWM (Q 10710)

THE BRITISH ARMY ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1914-1918 ) Views of the battlefield British soldiers survey devastated country on the Ypres Salient on 15 February 1918, a few months after the third Battle of Ypres. Around them are water-logged shell-holes, derelict British Mark IV tanks and the remains of shell-splintered trees. Image IWM © (Q 10710 . Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205246380

‘No Man’s Land’ – the area between the hostile lines – so often an oozing sore of putrid mud pitted with both man-made and God-made wreckage was slowly occupied by small bands of men quietly leaving their own trenches to observe their enemy and noting all they could see and hear so that fresh plans for a breakthrough could be made.

Caught in the sights of both sides these men dug deep into the scarred earth, tunnelling towards their enemy to listen to snatched conversation or once more searched for something with height that would provide shelter and a position to observe from.

Ruined buildings, half-destroyed equipment had a new purpose, although these things – so obviously a symbol built by those of another nation – would always be a target.

What was needed was something innocent and natural. And where they no longer existed new ones were built in workshops and erected by engineers.

large_Sniper_tree_© IWM (Q 17811)

A diagram of a British observation post disguised as a tree. Image © IWM (Q 17811). Original source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205252342

large_© IWM (Q 17809) _tree

MINISTRY OF INFORMATION FIRST WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION (Q 17809) Construction of dummy tree as observation post. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205252340

large_tree_transport_© IWM (Q 17810)

British troops with a tree observation post. Image © IWM (Q 17810). Original source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205252341

In the First World War Gallery at IWM London there is a German observation post designed to resemble a pollarded (cut back) willow tree. Made of thin metal sheeting over a framework it (like its British counterparts) was equipped with an internal ladder and a concealed entrance.

large_German_tree_© IWM (FEQ 854)

An example of a German observation tree currently on display in the First World War Galleries at IWM London. Image © IWM (FEQ 854). Original source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30028510

Today many real trees have replaced the false ones and mud has once more turned to crops of green and gold.

Many houses again dot the landscape. But not everywhere.

Large areas around the city of Verdun in north-eastern France are still too dangerous to repopulate and the ‘Iron Harvest’ could take century to gather in.  (1) (2) (3)


(1) https://www.nationalgeographic.org/news/red-zone/ – retrieved 31 May 2018

(2) https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/30/somme-iron-harvest-will-take-500-years-to-clear-say-bomb-disposa/ – retrieved 31 May 2018

(3) https://www.economist.com/news/2013/11/18/an-iron-harvest – retrieved 31 May 2018

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