WWI surveillance sketches

This was on Fark, so you guys have probably seen it, but I found it so extraordinary I didn’t want anybody to miss it.

In World War I, evidently they’d send people forward to sketch enemy fortifications and such, since it was more reliable than photography. This guy Len Smith was incredibly talented at it, but he was never decorated for it, didn’t really tell anybody about it, and died in the 1970’s after spending the bulk of his life as a commercial artist. Dude snuck up into No Man’s Land as close as possible to the enemy under cover of darkness, drew a dead tree in incredible detail, and then came back so they could make a hollow fake dead tree, replace the real one with the fake one, and use it as a listening post. Isn’t that insane?

Anyway, the artwork and the story is pretty amazing.


A part of history I was never aware of until now. Thanks Zsofia!

Sorry to nitpick, but I don’t know if it would be more accurate than photography. However the sketches would contain the details that were required- not just a broadbrush approach. He was truly a brave man.

Somewhere in my library I have a picture of a similar tree which I believe was used by the Germans. However, my memory could be faulty there. It may be the same tree referred to in the article above.

“Is this accurate?”

“Well, there were probably a few more machine gun nests and a few fewer elephants.”

God, wouldn’t it be a farce if it wasn’t? If the Brits had a tree on the German side and the Germans had a tree on the Brit side?

The article suggested that it wasn’t necessarily “better” than photography but rather less touchy - it couldn’t be out of focus, could use any amount of light a human could see by, didn’t require bulky equipment, etc. I’d never heard of this before today, though - haven’t been able to ask my boyfriend, who is the real photography history guy.

Sorry, can’t find the article about the tree- was not in the book I was thinking of. Will keep searching.

Most bird guides have drawings instead of photographs. You avoid the background clutter, and the artist can capture the salient spotting marks better than a photo of one specimen can.

How would it have been possible to ‘remove’ a tree, darkness notwithstanding, from a position within a few yards of enemy HQ without attracting the attention of said enemy?

To be honest, I think “a few yards” may be a bit of an exaggeration. But in some of the lower places- such as Flanders- even a height of a few yards - even close to your lines was significant. Which makes me think my idea about the German tree is wrong- they “generally” had the higher ground.

Well, the link is from The Mail on Sunday, a publication historically unafraid to use its full ration of hyperbole. :slight_smile:

The Guardian, presumably examining the diaries more closely, is more precise.

That’s twenty feet.

I guess Jerry was asleep en masse.

Slightly different to the one I saw. The tree would need to stay there all day and the occupant would be changed at nightfall- no trench system. With aerial pictures a trench system would be a give away.

Well, they had a lot of time to sit around and make up crazy-ass plans, I guess. “Let’s wait for a good rain, and then we’ll build an exact replica of that tree over there which Jerry’s been staring at for months and knows every inch of. We’ll switch the trees and then Private Johnson over there will hide out in it.” “Yeah, that’s a great idea!”

You also get color and more of a composite view when your final drawing is based on observations under different lighting conditions.

As for the tree, by the time the new one was in place the old one had become invisible to Germans with periscopes, which aren’t all that good for showing detail. I suppose any guy who looked at it more than a few times with his bare eyes wasn’t alive to tell the tale. You just didn’t stick your head out of the trench very often.

Paul Fussell, in The Great War and Modern Memory points out that clever things like hollow trees were done early in the war, and that as the war dragged on, any traces of wit or originality were extinguished.

Rather more evocative. :frowning:

But you are comparing apples and oranges. “Evocative” has no place in what Smith drew, which should be as objective and accurate as possible.

“Man, we’d be stupid not to try that!”

There was an episode of the Black Adder when he was assigned to sit in no man’s land and paint the Germans.