Barbed Wire War – How One Farmer’s Innovation Changed The Battlefield

More than a million miles of barbed wire was laid on the Western Front alone between 1914 and 1918 -- and to some, that's a conservative estimate.

More than a million miles of barbed wire was laid on the Western Front alone between 1914 and 1918 — and to some, that’s a conservative estimate.

“One expert estimated that by 1918, at least a million miles of the stuff had been strung throughout Flanders alone – enough to circle the earth 40 times.”

PERHAPS NOTHING IS MORE emblematic of warfare in the modern age as barbed wire.

What began as a seemingly innocuous 19th Century innovation in livestock enclosures would eventually go on to become one of the most potent symbols of the inhumanity of the First World War. One expert estimated that by 1918, at least a million miles of the stuff had been strung throughout Flanders alone – enough to circle the earth 40 times. An eyewitness reported that the wire snaking across the Western Front was so dense in places that “daylight could barely be seen through it.”[1]

Here are some more fascinating facts about barbed wire.

An Illinois farmer named Joseph Farwell Glidden made a fortune on his invention -- barbed wire.

An Illinois farmer named Joseph Farwell Glidden made a fortune on his invention — barbed wire.

Barbed Wire Born

An Illinois cattleman by the name of Joseph Glidden invented modern barbed wire in 1874. Made of two strands of intertwined wire connected at regular intervals by fixed barbs of twisted metal points, it was originally intended to prevent livestock from escaping confinement. Previously, cattle could free themselves from a wire enclosure by simply pressing against it. The pointy barbs served as a painful deterrent for cows.

The Battle Over Barbed Wire

A number of other American inventors had also been tinkering with their own versions of Glidden’s “thorny fence” design. Some of them challenged the inventor over the patent rights to barbed wire. The fight went on for years but the courts eventually ruled in favour of Glidden.

The End of the Cowboys

Barbed wire ultimately revolutionized cattle herding in America. In fact, some have argued that its widespread adoption by herders spelled the end of the “open range”, free grazing herds and even the Wild West itself. [1]

Barbed Wire Goes to War

As early as the 1880s, the world’s militaries began adopting the novel new invention as a means of preventing enemy infiltration. In 1888, British Army manuals offered procedures on how to effectively lay down barbed wire perimeters. [2] Ten years later, U.S. forces in the Spanish American War were fortifying their positions using barbed wire, as were British troops in the Second Boer War. It was also used extensively in the Russo-Japanese War.

The Barbed Wire Battlefield

By the outbreak of the First World War, Europe’s militaries had long since added barbed wire to their inventories. After the First Battle of the Marne and the rise of static trench warfare on the Western Front, barbed wire appeared on both sides of No Man’s Land in ever increasing quantities. It seemed as if factories on both sides of the conflict couldn’t produce the stuff fast enough.

Barbed wire became an all-too-recognizable feature of the Western Front.

Barbed wire became an all-too-recognizable feature of the Western Front.

O What Tangled Webs…

Barbed wire was typically laid out in long zigzagging strips or in belts running parallel to the trenches, often several rows and dozens of feet deep. Some wire obstacles were a little over knee-high to trip up and ensnare attackers, while the more heavy-duty barriers stood six feet tall or more to deter frontal assaults. Wire fields, particularly those on Germany’s densely fortified Hindenburg Line could reach as far as 300 feet out into No Man’s Land. While the obstacles were intended to prevent enemy raiders from getting within grenade-lobbing distance of a trench or observation post, the wire would also be laid out to funnel masses of charging soldiers into pre-arranged machine gun kill zones. [3] Engineers on both sides even configured elaborate wire “traps” that featured deceiving gaps in the otherwise formidable barriers. Soldiers would charge through these inviting openings into pre-sighted enfilades where they would be slaughtered wholesale. [4]

A Black Watch wiring party waits for dusk before heading out into No Man's Land.

A Black Watch wiring party waits for dusk before heading out into No Man’s Land.

Wiring Party

One of the more dangerous jobs on the Western Front was to be part of a wiring party. Teams of soldiers were regularly ordered from their trenches out into No Man’s Land at night to repair wire or lay down new barriers. Soldiers would drive stakes into the ground using rubber mallets and blankets to muffle the sound and then unspool and string up the wire as quietly as possible, while frequently having to dive for cover when flares intermittently illuminated the landscape. Laying a segment of wire under such conditions could take several hours. In areas where opposing trenches were only 100 yards apart or less, it wasn’t unheard of for wiring parties from opposing sides to blunder into each other in the darkness. [5]

Building a Better Man Trap

Some of the brightest minds on both sides spent considerable time dreaming up new ways to make barbed wire even nastier. Points were lengthened, made ever sharper and bunched closer together for maximum effect. The strands themselves were also fortified to resist rust, bullets, shellfire and wire cutters. German engineers looking to save money designed a whole new variety of cheaper yet stronger barbed wire. Known as concertina, barbed tape or razor wire, the new invention was die cut into long strips from ribbons of inexpensive sheet metal. The finished product was even more difficult to negotiate on the battlefield than conventional barbed wire.

Wireless War

Before any major offensive on the Western Front could even hope to succeeded, planners knew that the enemy’s vast barbed wire fields had to be eliminated. The week-long barrages that preceded operations like the 1916 Somme offensive were intended to shatter defenders’ morale but also to also tear large paths through the extensive wire fields of No Man’s Land. These bombardments often created vast chaotic tangles that were even more difficult for soldiers to traverse than before. Fortunately, there were other solutions to the wire dilemma…

An ad for barbed-wire proof gloves.

British clothier Turnbull & Asser supplied tailor-made uniforms for officers that were reportedly ‘barbed wire resistant’. The tight knit, heavy-duty fabric was supposedly impervious to barbs. The company also sold fortified gloves to Allied soldiers privately. Other firms marketed leather jerkins and tunics that kept the piercing points at bay. [6]

All manner of techniques were tried to overcome barbed wire from having volunteers throw their bodies across entanglements and then allowing comrades to charge across their backs to laying rubber mats down across the entanglements.

Wire cutters became as valuable to soldiers on the Western Front as any weapon. In fact, the British devised a curved wire-cutting blade that could be fitted to the muzzle of the Lee Enfield rifle, sort of like a bayonet. Other weapons, like the Bangalore Torpedo, were introduced. The long tubes, which were actually pioneered by the British before the war, were packed with high explosives and could be connected end-to-end and then snaked into enemy defenses from the safety of a crater or trench. Once detonated with a fuse, the device would blast a hole through barbed wire.

 

The tank was invented to blaze a path for the infantry through barbed wire.

Of course, the impossibility of barbed wire led directly to the development of one weapon that would single-handedly change the nature of land warfare forever – the tank. Engineered to break the deadlock of trench warfare, the vehicles’ caterpillar treads were designed specifically to roll over the craters and shell-pocked landscape of the Western Front and drive through the vast stretches of barbed wire past enemy trenches and on to final victory.

SOURCES
http://longstreet.typepad.com/thesciencebookstore/2011/03/knitting-barbed-wire.html
http://xroads.virginia.edu/~class/am485_98/cook/develp.htm
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Ten-Inventions-That-Inadvertently-Transformed-Warfare.html?c=y&page=1
http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/great-war-on-land/weapons-equipment-uniform/87-barbed-wire-on.html
http://olc.spsd.sk.ca/de/history20/unit1/sec3_11.html
http://inventors.about.com/od/bstartinventions/a/BarbedWire.htm
http://www.firstworldwar.com/atoz/wiring.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wire_obstacle
http://blog.maryevans.com/2013/05/bullet-proof-clothing-barbed-wire-resistant-gloves-life-saving-shaving-soap.html

4 comments for “Barbed Wire War – How One Farmer’s Innovation Changed The Battlefield

  1. Catfish
    17 January, 2014 at 9:56 pm

    Absolutely great blog. Great article about a simple but effect weapon.

  2. no one
    15 December, 2015 at 7:51 pm

    Who was this written by

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