Thursday 18 September 2008 by Dianne Rutherford. 8 comments
News, Exhibitions, Technology

An example of an observation post disguised as a tree. This one was used by Australian troops during the Battle of Messines on 7 June 1917 at Hill 63.
 

Since first blogging about the Memorial's German observation post camouflage tree  (called a "Baumbeobachter" by the Germans, literally meaning "tree observer") I have had a chance to take some photographs of parts of the tree I thought I would share, especially as some features may not be visible once the tree is fully assembled and on display.

When I visited our conservation workshop, the internal steel armoured structure had been put together and the 'bark' was being worked on by staff.

Andrew Schroeder, one of our conservators, told me some interesting things about the tree that I hadn't found mentioned in old Memorial records. For example, the seat is not just all steel. It has a wooden 'cushion' (still doesn't sound too comfortable though!) and can be pushed up so you can climb past in order to sit on it.

He also told me that the wire mesh may not have been used to disguised the face of the soldier in the tree as the records indicated. Once they put the internal armoured section together they found that you cannot easily see through the viewing holes while sitting on the seat, unless you stretch a fair bit (or are very tall) in which case the soldier may have needed a small periscope to view out of the holes. In addition the soldier would have sat a long way back from the viewing holes, which may have allowed for the use of a telescope.

It is more likely the wire mesh was used to disguise the holes in the 'bark' when viewed from a distance, rather than the face of the soldier. It makes sense that the soldier may not have been able to directly see out of the holes. It would be for their own protection to have an indirect line of view, as the viewing holes are a weak point of the armoured section. The viewing holes can also be closed from the inside, for extra protection. This shows how the work carried out by our Conservation staff can tell us parts of the story you would not otherwise know.

 

The inner armoured section of the tree, with the base.

The inner armoured section is quite impressive to see put together and upright. It is 5.722 metres from the base to the top of the armoured section. The bark, when attached, extends beyond that, making the entire tree 7.307 metres tall. The top part of the inner armoured tube (with the viewing holes) is slightly wider than the rest of the tube.

 

Interior of the inner armoured section, showing how cramped it is. You can see the seat near the top.

I took this photograph of the interior from the base entrance, looking up towards the lid. I was suprised the photograph worked as well as it did. In the top centre of this photograph you can see the seat. On the left you can see some major shrapnel damage. Across from that hole, is a dent (not viewable in this photo) where the shrapnel hit the other side and embedded.

 

A section of the ladder from the tree, compared to the size of a man\'s foot.

To get into the top of the tree the soldiers needed a ladder. Although I knew the ladder would have to be thin, I did not expect it to be quite this thin. It is just wide enough to fit a booted foot. You will notice how close the rungs are - they are only about 11 cm apart. This is because there is such little room in the tree, that you can only bend your knees a small amount, so the rungs had to be close together. Due to this it would be quite difficult for a tall soldier to climb the tree, so it is more likely that shorter soldiers were used in the observation post.

 

Close up of the coating on the steel ‘bark’

To give the exterior a rough, bark like texture, it was coated with some sort of concoction. While most of the ingredients have not yet been identified, one of them appears to be crushed sea shells. 

Top section of steel ‘bark’.
 

For the observation post to be effective and unnoticed it had to convince the enemy that it was a real tree. It is fascinating to see how they made the steel look like bark and wood. This photograph of the back half of the bark section shows two contrasting textures and colours - the rougher, darker part resembling bark and the smoother, lighter section imitating wood - making it look as if the bark was torn away by shrapnel and shell fire. This was how the original tree looked before it was cut down and replaced.

 

The framework of the exterior of the tree.

It was interesting to see how the exterior 'bark' was put together. The 'bark' has a metal frame that would sit against the inner armoured tube. Attached to the outside of the metal frame are pieces of wood. As you can see in this photograph, the wood could be shaped and the sheet steel 'bark' placed over it to give the overall natural shape of a tree.

This 'bark' outer shell was in two halves - front and back. These were placed around the inner armoured tube and joined on each side. You can see in the photograph above where the inner part of the frame widens (and the wood ends) to accomodate the wider viewing section of the inner armoured tube. You can also see some of the shrapnel and bullet damage.

 

The entrance to the tree, showing initials carved in its interior by a member of 3 Battalion, AIF in January 1918.

One suprise on viewing the tree was the discovery of some initials in the base. We knew there were signatures and initials on the front half of the 'bark', but did not realise there were more elsewhere on the tree. This photograph shows the service number and initials of a member of 3 Battalion (upside down on the interior of the base) - 7028 HJM.

HJM is 7028 Private Harold John Meyn who served with 3 Battalion and later 1 Machine Gun Battalion. Other intials have also been discovered around the seat. Unfortunately they do not have service numbers recorded, so the soldiers' identities may never be revealed. The date 27/1/18 is scratched into the seat.

Some of the signatures on the tree.

There are a bunch of signatures at the top of the front half of the 'bark'. They were written in pencil or scratched into the surface. Unfortunately many of them are now indeciferable, 90 years after the tree came down. Some signatures have faded, or are written over other signatures, so it can be quite difficult to read them. Since identifying Meyn's initials, several more men have been identified from signatures or intials on the 'bark', including 990 Sergeant Ernest Whittaker229 Private Frederick Draper6984 Private Jack Dalton, 6885 Private John Parsons, 6802 Private Francis Bernard O'Donnell, 2735 Private Thomas O'Neill, 2772 Private John Patrick Rochrig and 7055 Private Frederick Augustus Peck (killed in action three months later in April 1918). One of the Memorial's volunteers, John Macnaughtan has spent a great deal of time deciphering many of these signatures, which adds more to the story of the tree.

The new exhibition 'Over the Front' is opening on 28 November 2008.

Comments

Joerg Muth

This is just a correction to the German name used. The correct name is "Baumbeobachter" (capital 'B' and an 'r' at the end. Congrats on the good work. Best wishes Joerg

Annette

Thanks for the fascinating post and in particular, the detailed photographs. I've been interested in the "baumbeobachte" for a while now so it's great to see how it all fits together.

Dianne Rutherford says:

Hi Joerg, thanks for picking up on the typos I missed. I have corrected the entry. Cheers Di

John Scott Palmer

Very interesting post! I look forward to seeing the tree at the Memorial next time I'm in.

Bob Meade

Thank you for this valuable information.

Zavier

Interesting Information. Hopefully my next trip to the memorial will include a visit to seeing the tree.

Rob

Hey thanks for this post! I didn't even know about the Germans using “Baumbeobachter” as an observation outpost. Found this really interesting, im heading over to google now to see what else I can dust up about this. Germans are so innovative!

Di Rutherford

Thanks Rob, I don't know whether the Germans used them first or the French, but they are really fascinating items. The French showed the British how to make them and there's some interesting artworks in the Imperial War Museum's collection (http://www.iwmcollections.org.uk/qryMain.php)showing British observation trees being erected, the first British tree was erected in 1916. It looks like a lot of hard work! In addition both sides also used real trees for observation, building ladders up them and sometimes viewing platforms. An example of this is is in photograph A00788 in our collections database (/database/collection.asp). The tree is now on display and I think it looks fantastic, so if you are ever in Canberra you will have to come and see it!