Tuesday, July 5, 2016

More Horse Carcasses & Phony Observation Trees

Steel-Lined Dead Tree Observation Post
Above During the trench warfare of World War I, both sides of the conflict "test drove" the idea of clandestinely replacing familiar large dead tree trunks with steel-lined replicas of the same trees. Equipped inside with a ladder and a telephone, these were used as observation posts. Given the skill and effort required to construct one of these, not to mention the challenge of putting it in place (at night, in total darkness), there can only have been a few of these.

As noted in an earlier post, British painter Solomon J. Solomon (initially in charge of the Camouflage Section of the Royal Engineers) is thought to have been responsible for erecting the first British observation tree in March 1916, a task that he later depicted in a well-known painting.

In this wartime photograph, we see a British soldier apparently inspecting a faux tree made by German camoufleurs. There are a few eyewitness accounts of how these were constructed, and at least one British observation tree has survived and is in the collection of the Imperial War Museum in London.


E. Alexander Powell, Italy at War and the Allies in the West. [The War on All Fronts series. Vol IV] New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1919.

At a certain very important point on the French front there long stood, in an exposed and commanding position, a large and solitary tree, or rather the trunk of a tree, for it had been shorn of its branches by shell fire. A landmark in that flat and devastated region, every detail of this gaunt sentinel had long since become familiar to the keen eyed observers in the German trenches, a few hundred yards away. Were a man to climb to its top—and live—he would be able to command a comprehensive view of the surrounding terrain. The German sharpshooters saw to it, however, that no one climbed it. But one day the resourceful French took the measurements of that tree and photographed it. These measurements and photographs were sent to Paris. A few weeks later there arrived at the French front by railway an imitation tree, made of steel, which was an exact duplicate in every respect, even to the splintered branches and the bark, of the original. Under cover of darkness the real tree was cut down and the fake tree erected in its place, so that, when daylight came, there was no change in the landscape to arouse the Germans' suspicions. The lone tree-trunk to which they had grown so accustomed still reared itself skyward. But the "tree" at which the Germans were now looking was of hollow steel, and concealed in its interior in a sort of conning tower, forty feet above the ground, a French observing officer, field glasses at his eyes and a telephone at his lips, was peering through a cleverly concealed peep-hole, spotting the bursts of the French shells and regulating the fire of the French batteries.


Of course there were other kinds of battlefield observation posts as well, such as the supposed use of imitation horse carcasses as hiding places, as was featured earlier. My own suspicion is that few of these colorful camouflage ploys were actually used on the battlefield. But they proved immensely valuable as amusing illustrations for exaggerated news reports, which boosted recruiting and Liberty Loans. Below for example are photographs of the two sides of a roughed-out dead horse carcass trick, mocked-up in clay by camoufleurs at Camp Taylor KY (c1918).

Phony Horse Carcass Used as Observation Post