Picture Postcards from the Great War
1914-1918

The story behind a Great War postcard - Tony Allen

(25) The Observation Tree

Concealment and also observation of the enemy trenches was extremely important during the war and a pioneer in this field was Solomon J. Solomon who developed and perfected ‘The Observation Tree.’

ww1 postcard Trench Observation Tree

 

The card on the left carries a mono printed photograph on a buff coloured background, Printed details on the front of it, tell us it was card number 9 in a series published by the Imperial War Museum – probably in the early ‘twenties. The caption below the picture reads, "MODEL: CAMOUFLAGE TREE OBSERVATION POST." ‘Waterlow & Sons Limited, London’, printed the card. Through a cutaway section of the model, an observation officer is looking through a spy-hole towards the enemy lines. The model splendidly illustrated an ingenious example of British deception. One of the pioneers of Great War camouflage, Solomon J. Solomon, created it.

 

Solomon was fifty-four at the outbreak of hostilities, and a successful English portrait painter, who quickly came to appreciate the concept of using artificial material for camouflage. For example, he suggested that dyed butter muslin held up by bamboo poles was a splendid method of concealing trenches and artillery pieces from aerial observation. He submitted the idea to the War Office, but after trials at Woolwich, his idea was turned down. However, in the summer of 1915, Solomon, who by then had enlisted in the Artists Rifles, was ordered to G.H.Q. France. He was instructed to design and construct a camouflaged observation post, which would to all intents and purposes resemble a typical shell-damaged tree trunk. In accordance with his task, he was given a commission as a Colonel in the Royal Engineers. A tree in a prominent position in the front-line was selected as a likely candidate and detailed drawings were made of it. Returning to England the new camoufleur set to work. The ‘tree’, constructed from sections of steel tubing, was just large enough to enable an observer to climb up a ladder inside. The sections were bolted together and covered with bark taken - with the King’s permission - from a willow in Windsor Great Park. Finally, the whole assembly was screwed into a collar, which was later fixed to the ground.


One night early in 1916, on the British trench-line in France, a shell-damaged willow was cut down, and before dawn, it had been replaced by Solomon’s’ dummy tree. He recorded the event by painting it. The picture, which is now in the Imperial War Museum, shows "The erection of the First Observation Post Tree" located on the embankment of the Yser canal. Among the figures on the extreme right of the scene, is that of Colonel Solomon.

Solomon erected a number of observation post trees on the Western Front, which on occasions also doubled as snipers’ posts and were reported to be "extremely useful."

 

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