Veteran chestnut tree bears witness to occupation of East Flanders


A violent wind recently blew down a tree in a forest of East Flanders, and researchers have discovered that it survived both shelling and felling during the First World War

Tree healed own wound

When researchers cut into a fallen chestnut tree from the Kluisbos in East Flanders they were expecting to determine its age and maybe learn about environmental changes. Instead they found signs that the tree (pictured) had been hit by shrapnel during the First World War and survived to tell the tale.

The chestnut tree was something of a celebrity in the forest, which lies near Ronse on the border of East Flanders and Wallonia. Originally planted as a boundary marker, it was the oldest and broadest tree in the wood, and so had protected status.

When it blew down in a storm last spring, researchers made the best of the misfortune and cut into the trunk to see what they could learn about its history. The number of rings gave the tree’s age – 176 years – while variations in their thickness documented its growth, and hence allowed conclusions to be drawn about its environment.

But the researchers also found a striking blue-black spot in the wood, where the tree had recovered from a major injury. Counting back, they found that this injury occurred in 1917, in the middle of the First World War.

‘It’s a real war veteran’

“In that year, the tree was hit by explosive ammunition,” explains Kristof Haneca of the Flanders Heritage Agency in a timely blog post about the tree. “The flying metal tore pieces of wood out of the trunk, but the chestnut survived, and after a few years new wood grew over the wound. But fragments of metal that remained in the trunk reacted with the tannins present in the wood and caused the black discolouration.”

The German army cut down many Flemish woods to make it easier for its artillery to target the battlefields, and also used the woods for training exercises, so it is remarkable that the chestnut survived at all. Most of the trees in the Kluisbos date from the 1920s, when the wood was replanted after peace was restored.

“In other words, the dead chestnut from the Kluisbos was one of the few trees that experienced and survived the violence of war in the region,” Haneca writes. “It’s a real war veteran tree.”