AT first sight, glimpsed through the trees, it’s ghostly white, like an apparition. But further along the winding path, deep in Dalby forest, it comes into focus: a curious tunnel-like structure, ridged, corrugated and textured.

It is “Nissen Hut”; a new sculpture by Turner prize-winning artist Rachel Whiteread, and it was unveiled to the public earlier this month.

Nissen huts were military structures invented in the First World War by Major Peter Nissen. They were designed to be built quickly, cheaply, and with minimal manpower. Around 11m by 5m in size, they found themselves employed for a huge range of uses, from workshops and field hospitals to accommodation and even churches.

In Dalby, the structures have had a 100-year link to the land. They were used in prisoner of war camps there during both world wars, and in the 1930s they housed workers as part of a local labour camp. These people planted the forest as it is now, transforming what would have been open upland farmland into a strategic timber reserve.

The huts have been used by the Forestry Commission ever since. They even still have one in use today to store kit. The sculpture has been commissioned to mark 100 years since both the creation of the Forestry Commission and the end of the First World War.

Rachel Whiteread says at the sculpture’s launch: “The idea of them was to make something that could be built very quickly and simply in difficult locations. They were designed so six men could put one up in four hours.

“I’ve made lots of things - I’ve cast sheds and boathouses and places called shotgun shacks in the desert in America. And it seemed to me that Nissen huts are very British in a way.

“You see them [Nissen huts] in the landscape all over the country, and they’re decaying. But some have been made permanent - people have put bitumen on the outside of them, so they have this whole other life.”

She herself has a relationship with the First World War through her grandparents - her mother’s side fought in the war and her father’s side were conscientious objectors.

Looking at the sculpture now in place in the context of the forest, she says: “It’s absolutely perfect. It was so great working with the Forestry Commission. We had a vision and they made it happen extraordinarily quickly and it was a great experience.”

The sculpture, currently a vivid grey-white, will bed down and age into the surrounding trees, she adds.

“It will get moss growing on it and spiders living on it.

“I hope it will draw more people into the forest. I hope people will come to see it specially and I also hope people will just stumble upon it and wonder what it is and be intrigued enough to find out more.”

Aside from being a product of a partnership between the Forestry Commission and the 14-18NOW art project, “Nissen Hut” also fits in with Whiteread’s “shy sculptures” series, which she has been working on in recent years.

“They are beginning to exist worldwide,” she says of the artworks. “I tend to try and work with indigenous buildings that I want to memorialise in some way.”

Whiteread makes sculptures - as she’s done in this case - by filling buildings with concrete then removing the outer skin. In this way, what is left isn’t so much an outline of a building, but rather an outline of the “inverse” of a building - the empty space made solid.

She won the Turner prize in 1993 for “House” - a concrete cast of the inside of an entire Victorian terraced house, exhibited at the location of the original building in East London.

The piece was controversial. Like the home it was created from, House was destroyed by the local council soon after Whiteread collected the prize.

This new sculpture has not been without controversy as well.

The piece itself failed to impress some of the councillors on the North York Moors planning committee.

One member, Janet Frank, said: “A Nissen hut is one of the ugliest buildings there’s ever been.” Another, Les Atkinson, opined: “I could build that myself in my own back yard.”

And there were slight issues with the location. It was originally intended to be sited near Low Dalby village, but the plans prompted a backlash from villagers who had concerns about parking and visitor traffic. The Forestry Commission were forced to rethink, and moved it to the Adderstone area.

But Alan Eves, district manager for the Forestry Commission, said: “We had seven to nine different locations where we could have placed it. The piece finds its place. In terms of access and to encourage people to use the broader forest we thought it would be better placed here.

“This is a national piece of work to launch the centenary. For us in Yorkshire it’s a real coup.

“They are a unique structure, they’re unusual. It’s about connecting people to our forests and telling them the story, our history.”

The piece was co-commissioned by the 14-18 NOW project, an independent arts programme designed to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. Over the past four years it has commissioned events and artworks all over the country to mark 100 years since the conflict.

Its involvement with the Forestry Commission and the creation of the Nissen Hut sculpture evolved over several years.

Tamsin Dillon, a curator at 14-18 NOW, says: “It’s been a very long-held ambition of mine to work with Rachel Whiteread. I’ve admired her work for a long long time. And knowing about her ‘shy sculpture’ series, and that she has been making work for a while that involves making responses to remote locations like forests, we started a conversation with her. That was at least two years ago.

“We found a number of different kinds of buildings that fitted the bill but then we found a Nissen hut, which were invented in the first world war. Dalby Forest was the site of a prisoner of war camp in the first and second world wars. It was all starting to fit together.

“It’s very exciting. For something that is so large, I love it that you just come across it in the trees.”

For the Forestry Commission, the launch of the sculpture is just the start of their centenary celebration year which will include art events, commemorative tree planting and new woodland creation across the country.

The Forestry Commision was created to start a national timber reserve but its purpose has evolved.

Alan says: “Timber is still our USP, it’s what we produce, but it’s broader than that. It’s about people, nature and the economy. Here at Dalby we have over 500,000 visitors a year. And it’s still a productive forest - in North Yorkshire we produce 130,000 cubic metres of timber every year. It’s our biggest source of income.

“But at the same time our forests are open and we welcome people to use them.”

Unique artworks such as Nissen Hut are testament to that.