“To me, half the war is a memory of trees: fallen and tortured trees, trees untouched in summer moonlight, torn and shattered winter trees, trees green and brown, grey and white, living and dead. They gave names to our roads and trenches, strongpoints and areas. Beneath their branches I found the best and the worst of war: heard nightingales and smelt primroses, heard the scream of endless shells and breathed gas; rested in their shade, spied from their branches, cowered in their roots. They carried our telephone lines, hid our horses, guided us to and from battle and formed the memorial to many efforts of arms.” - Lt. Richard Talbot Kelly, 52nd Brigade RFA. Quoted in Tommy’s Ark by Richard van Emden.
As the leaves on the trees here in London continue to fall and the weather turns colder, we take a timely look at the diverse roles that trees played on the front lines during the Great War.
On a purely practical level, trees were a valuable on-site resource on the Western Front. Their trunks were used as notice boards to disseminate information, with newspapers pinned on their trunks for troops to read. Wood provided the duckboards to traverse the sodden terrain, and more bleakly, provided the crosses to mark the graves of the dead. Troops on the move used woods as resting places of a more temporary variety, and for what shelter that they could afford, with roots and even hollow tree trunks offering sanctuary when required. Road-side trees could be felled and laid across roads to create impromptu roadblocks to impede the advancing enemy, as these near Havrincourt cut down by German soldiers during the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917.
Tall trees made good observation posts, and leaf cover could offer protection for snipers hidden in their branches. Mike Sheil's Fields of Battle photographs, which document the battlefields of WW1 as they are today, holds this image of rungs hammered into the trunk of the tree, still living today more than a century on, which served as a German observation post at Bois d’Ormont at Verdun.
Trees and woods were used as navigational landmarks, but could also be portents of danger. Whilst trees branches could protect, they could also pose a risk, for example by snagging and trapping falling parachutists, making them targets for enemy fire. When the Newfoundland Regiment advanced on the first day of the battle of the Somme, July 1st 1916, a clump of trees half way into no man’s land was used as a marker, where a narrow entrance had been cut into the enemy’s wire. Unfortunately, the highly visible trees became a draw for heavy enemy fire, with the Newfoundland Regiment suffering substantial losses close by, and piles of corpses reportedly impeding the waves of the advancing troops. Earning the name the Danger Tree, the twisted remains of a trunk and skeletal branches became a memorial to the men who fell there, with the Illustrated London News publishing this picture of the Danger Tree more than a decade on in 1927. A tree set in a concrete base still stands on the site to this day, but is thought not to be the original tree.
Trees also could aid with camouflage and deceiving the enemy; The Illustrated London News in 1916 reported the surprise of two French prisoners of war who, attempting to escape via the German-Dutch border, discovered that the German sentry they intended to overpower was in fact a pollarded tree, made to look like a German soldier bearing arms.
The therapeutic aspect of being amongst trees and the pleasure they could bring in the midst of the chaos of war may seem a minor detail, but their value in this regard is worth acknowledging. The Graphic reproduced a photograph of French soldiers felling a small fir tree at Christmas time, with reports of Germans decorating their trenches with them. A potted Christmas tree can be seen on a depiction of the Christmas Eve Truce by A.C. Michael, special artist for The Illustrated London News, and The Sphere depicts German and British troops fraternising, posing for a camera brandishing holly branches and with mistletoe on their uniforms.
Even as the war was raging a century ago, nature still had the power to uplift and to regenerate in the face of great adversity. The Graphic Summer Number of 1917 devoted a page to the fruit trees of Passchendale, which continued to blossom despite being almost completely torn down. Entitled ‘Beauty in spite of the beast: the spirit of summer triumphs over Teuton devilry”, The Graphic interpreted these trees as “symbolising the spirit of France: these fruit trees, though sorely tested, decline to die.”
Whether offering sanctuary and shelter, having therapeutic value or warning of danger, trees had a small but significant part to play on the front lines, far beyond being merely a detail of nature in a war-ravaged landscape. It’s poignant to reflect that some of the trees that experienced the Great War are still living today, out stripping the short life spans of the men they once cradled in their branches or sheltered amongst their roots, and even surviving a subsequent World War, and beyond.
Too see a selection of tree-themed WWI images follow this link - https://www.maryevans.com/lb.php?ref=37558