The Killer Trees of World War One

When is a tree not a tree? Well, that’s not quite the esoteric problem you might imagine. Actually, it’s one grounded in fact…and deadly serious fact at that because, during World War One, a man’s life might depend on the answer to that very question.

Both the British and the Germans vied in the cunning methods they deployed to outwit and kill each other during the war. For example, underground mines were regularly placed beneath enemy positions to blow soldiers to smithereens. In fact, the British used a series of such mines at Messines Ridge in 1917. They caused a massive explosion that killed ten thousand Germans and created a blast that was heard by Lloyd George in Downing Street.

Similarly, the British came up with an enormous and deadly hidden flame thrower that rose up from the ground and devastated enemy positions. A less spectacular weapon, but one that was just as lethal for its victims on the Western Front, was the use of artificial trees on the battlefield. Yes, you read correctly.

Under cover of darkness, real battle-scarred stumps in no-man’s land would be replaced with artificial replicas. Made of wrought-iron and steel, these were ingeniously camouflaged and were used as observation posts from which to spy on and snipe at the enemy.

The British tasked special groups of Royal Engineers to carefully select a real tree on the battlefield. The ideal ‘candidate’ would be dead and often bomb scarred. The tree would be meticulously measured, photographed and sketched from all angles.

The information was then sent to a workshop where artists constructed an artificial tree of hollow steel cylinders, inside which was scaffolding for support and enough room for a sniper or observer to climb.

Various examples of 'O.P. Trees' that were used during the war

Various examples of ‘O.P. Trees’ that were used during the war

Then, under cover of night, the team would cut down the real tree, dig a hole in the place of its roots and insert the replica.

Come daybreak, the enemy would not know the difference and instead of a harmless stump there would now sit a deadly sniper tower. Simple, but very effective…

Firing from these perfectly camouflaged structures, snipers from both sides claimed many victims. The Germans called them ‘Baumbeobachter’ – or ‘tree observer’ – the British christened them ‘O.P. Trees’. Presumably, the initials stood for ‘Observation Post’.

London’s Imperial War Museum houses several sketches depicting camouflaged trees, including work by the artist Leon Underwood, who was one of the original camoufleurs.
And next summer, you can see one of these intriguing structures for yourself if you visit the Museum. An original camouflage tree, believed to be the only one of its kind, will be on display there at the new First World War Galleries section.

Back in 2008, a reconstructed tree was put on display by the Australian War Memorial in Canberra after it was captured by Australian troops in 1917.

According to Diane Rutherford, who wrote about it on the memorial’s website, the tree was ‘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.’

We’ve had World War One and World War Two, now, thanks to the devious military mind, we can look back in horrid fascination at the heartache wrought by World War Tree…

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About historywithatwist

I am an Associate Editor with a national newspaper. I have a keen interest in history and in writing. I have published one novel, Tan, and am currently working on a sequel
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19 Responses to The Killer Trees of World War One

  1. When I read your title, I couldn’t help but think of the role the trees played in Lord of the Rings. They were more mobile but every bit as deadly as these sniper trees. And your last sentence? I’m groaning … 😉

  2. It’s sad but true that there seems to be no limits to human ingenuity when it comes to divining nasty ways of killing enemies.
    A very interesting article, thanks David, you should take a bough. 🙂

  3. Ingenious! I expect the presence of the fake tree at Oostaverne was only given away by the little heap of concussed woodpeckers lying around it! I hear we also lobbed dead rats stuffed with explosives into enemy entrenchements in WW2! Apparently the total destruction of Messines Ridge, by underground detonation of massive amounts of explosives, was the biggest explosion in the history of warfare until the nuclear devices came along. I love the quote on the eve of Messines from the senior officer briefing the allied troops: ‘tomorrow, we may not change history, but by gad we’ll change the geography’!

  4. Another really fascinating look at the way the world worked in wartime.
    Loving these glimpses behind the trenches, and into the minds and daily realities of those who fought and died.

  5. Hi David … I posted about WWI underground mines at Messines last week. Clearly we’ve done some similar research. Two years ago, I had the privilege of seeing Musee de la Grande Guerre in Peronne, France where a camouflaged tree was on display along with many other WWI exhibits. Gruesome inventiveness.

    • Hi Mary, I read that piece on your blog. It is a fascinating episode, the Messines blast. I used it as the backdrop to the sequel of my novel, Tan, which I hope to publish very soon. How the soldiers coped in those conditions is beyond me.

  6. dubmantalks says:

    David, Really interesting article. The inventiveness of those determined to slaughter each other seems to have known no bounds. Can you just imagine the likely outcome if that same creativeness had been put into saving lives? Wonder was the Special Branch aware that their equipment was being used? lol.

  7. sinabhfuil says:

    Very nice piece!

  8. jjtoner says:

    I’ve only just discovered this today. Another knockout blog. 🙂

  9. Pingback: Guerilla Warfare: Lots of Possibilities with Nature Blinds | The Tactical Hermit

  10. Reblogged this on The way I see things … and commented:
    Thanks Tactical Hermit for pointing me toward this fascinating bit of history!

    ——————————

    underground mines were regularly placed beneath enemy positions to blow soldiers to smithereens. In fact, the British used a series of such mines at Messines Ridge in 1917. They caused a massive explosion that killed ten thousand Germans and created a blast that was heard by Lloyd George in Downing Street.

    Similarly, the British came up with an enormous and deadly hidden flame thrower that rose up from the ground and devastated enemy positions. A less spectacular weapon, but one that was just as lethal for its victims on the Western Front, was the use of artificial trees on the battlefield. Yes, you read correctly.

    Under cover of darkness, real battle-scarred stumps in no-man’s land would be replaced with artificial replicas. Made of wrought-iron and steel, these were ingeniously camouflaged and were used as observation posts from which to spy on and snipe at the enemy.

    The British tasked special groups of Royal Engineers to carefully select a real tree on the battlefield. The ideal ‘candidate’ would be dead and often bomb scarred. The tree would be meticulously measured, photographed and sketched from all angles.

    The information was then sent to a workshop where artists constructed an artificial tree of hollow steel cylinders, inside which was scaffolding for support and enough room for a sniper or observer to climb.

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