Barbed wire in the First World War and in the Shropshire Hills today.
Who would have guessed that barbed wire would prove the inspiration for Shropshire’s own war poet Wilfred Owen? At the opening of Exposure he draws upon those years walking from their home in Cherry Orchard, Shrewsbury along the Severn.
Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . .
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . .
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . .
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
But nothing happens.
Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
What are we doing here?
Owen’s ‘brambles’ are a fraction of a million miles of barbed wire along the Western Front – enough to circle the earth 40 times. In places so dense you could hardly see daylight through it.
The Devil’s Rope
In the course of the War barbed wire was transformed from a largely defensive instrument into a deadly one: its ability to trap made it one of the most effective low-tech weapons. Soldiers laid out wire to defend their trenches, but also to create areas where the enemy could be trapped for slaughter. “Barbed wire was used to channel assaulting enemy forces into prepared kill zones covered either by machine guns or artillery target points,” said history professor Wyatt Evans. Soldiers often couldn’t see the wire until they found themselves under fire. For such a low-tech product barbed wire provoked a whole host of weapons to counter its dangers.
We had the wrong fuzes
When the War began our field guns were designed for anti-personnel use; shrapnel shells intended to burst above head-height. To destroy barbed-wire barricades, required shells to explode instantaneously on contact with the wire or ground. British nose fuzes, available from Aug 1915 onwards could not detect contact with a frail object like barbed wire or soft ground surface. Trench warfare on the Western Front during 1914–1916 proved that British artillery was unable reliably to destroy barbed-wire barricades. French technology provided the answer; a mechanism for reliably detonating a high-explosive shell, when the nose made physical contact with the slightest object like a strand of barbed wire. The fuze was first used in the later phases of the Battle of the Somme in late 1916, and entered service in early 1917. Our armies finally had a reliable means of detonating shells on the surface. Hence the song Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire
If you want to find the Sergeant,
I know where he is, I know where he is, I know where he is.
If you want to find the Sergeant, I know where he is,
He’s lying on the canteen floor.
I’ve seen him, I’ve seen him, lying on the canteen floor,
I’ve seen him, I’ve seen him, lying on the canteen floor.
If you want to find the old battalion,
I know where they are, I know where they are, I know where they are
If you want to find the old battalion, I know where they are,
They’re hanging on the old barbed wire,
I’ve seen ’em, I’ve seen ’em, hanging on the old barbed wire.
I’ve seen ’em, I’ve seen ’em, hanging on the old barbed wire.
Devised in 1912 by Captain McClintock, of the Bengal, Bombay & Madras Sappers and Miners, the Bangalore
torpedo was used for clearing barbed wire before an attack. It could be used while under fire, and consisted of a number of identical 5ft lengths of threaded pipe, one containing the explosive charge. It would be pushed forward from a protected position in a trench and detonated, to clear a 5ft hole through barbed wire.
At last a solution
When I was learning German at school in the early 1950s My teacher claimed that Schützengrabenvernichtungspanzerkraftwagen was the German compound for a tank – being literally a trench-destroying-armoured-plated-vehicle. My reaction was that by the time the German soldiers had gasped out that fearsome compound, a whole squadron of tanks might have passed over you. It may have been an academic joke passed down for several generations.
Anyway the British tanks finally cracked the problem of the barbed wire. By cutting through the wire and destroying the German lines one after another, the tanks allowed the infantry to launch a ‘surprise attack’ rather than the advanced warning provided by the softening-up of an artillery bombardment.
You won’t walk far in the Shropshire Hills before you come upon a woolly washing-line. The barbs are festooned with sheep’s wool. My wife, Meg, sees this as a continuous thread reaching back to Lawrence de Ludlow, greatest wool merchant of his day, and builder of Stokesay Castle in 1281. Although most histories attribute the development of barbed wire to French and US inventors, I like to think we can go further back to the Enclosures in this country.
Walk on from the woolly washing line and you will soon come to the hedges generated by a few of the acts of parliament which applied to the Shropshire Hills. Nationally, one sixth of the England was ‘privatised’ between 1760 and 1870. If you were lucky enough to profit from the ‘improvement’ of the open fields, pastures and wastelands the first thing you did was plant a hedge – ideally hawthorn, blackthorn (sloe) or holly. Prickly hedging acts as a natural wind break. Hawthorn is fast growing about 18” a year so it needs to be trimmed after flowering or in the autumn. Hawthorn thrives on all soil types and all sites other than dense shade or very wet soils. According to the Woodland Trust, it is the second most advantageous plant for wildlife. In autumn it develops red haws, which sustain native birds, especially starlings, thrushes, blackbirds and redwings. Hawthorn also supports more than 150 species of insect, a rich food source for wrens and blue tits. Dense branches covered with sharp thorns provide a safe place to roost and nest. There are millions of miles of hawthorn hedgerows in our countryside.
The pastoral associations with barbed wire are scarcely accidental. Both the French and US pioneers drew upon Mother Nature for their inspiration. A man rejoicing in a most prickly name, Léonce Eugène Gassin-Baledons, described his invention “when these ribbons are twisted together, wire-points bristle in every direction and form spikes, imitating thorn branches.” In the United States they knew whom they were trying to deter “It protects the fields against strollers and vagrants. It commands instant respect from man and beast …” “My invention relates to imparting to fences of wire a character approximating to that of a thorn-hedge. I prefer to designate the fence so produced as a thorny fence.” . (US Patent Feb 11, 1868 Michael Kelly of New York, NY.)