O.E.D: Barbed-wire = b) used as fencing; especially barbed (earlier barb) w.: A fencing wire composed of two or more strands twisted together with barbs or short spikes fastened a few inches apart in the strands; also the fencing or defence so constructed (1876).

Synonyms: War-wire; The Devil's rope; Entanglement wire; Concertina wire; Concentration camp wire; The wire.

Introduction

What we call today military barbed-wire was originally invented in 1874 by an American farmer - F. Glidden - and was soon widely used for fencing in the beef herds on the American Plains.

As basically expressed in the O.E.D entry above, in Glidden's design, a small segment of sharpened wire was wound around a single long strand of smooth round wire, at about 6 inch intervals, leaving two sharpened barbs of about one inch length protruding outwards at 90 degrees. A second long strand of wire was then twisted around the first strand locking the barbs in place.

The Americans used the cattle barbed wire in their Civil War as did the French Army in several of their military endeavours. By 1902, it, and other versions, was widely used by many armies as a means of creating obstacles to impede advancing troops.

By 1914, barbed wire was a standard item in the military defence schemes of all the major belligerents of the Great War. By then the number of barbs had increased to four and the intervals between them was reduced to 5 inches, or even less.

In 1917, the German Army introduced armoured barbed wire, which was more resistant to the destructive action of shelling.

During the Great War, the importance of barbed wire as a defence measure was second only to munitions.

Trench warfare and barbed wire defences

Once trench-ware became widespread on the Western Front, the use of barbed wire becwireame a universal means of first line defence. Huge belts of coiled barbed wire were created and held in place by wooden posts, or six feet triangular metal stakes (pickets) hammered into the ground with wooden mallets: to deaden the sound. Later in the war, round, corkscrew-ended steel rods were introduced that were, supposedly, easier to insert silently into the ground. Today, many of these metal stakes and rods are the only readily discernible trace of the Great War trench lines. Others are still to be seen serving modern utilitarian purposes. The German barbed-wire defences in the Hindenburg Line were particular extensive and formidable.

However, in the very early days of the war, often only a single strand of barbed wire was run along the fighting front to which were attached tin cans containing stones. It was hoped that any night-raiders would rattle the cans and warn the defenders of their approach.

  • Later, the barbed wire defence system was typically organised as follows:
  • The first defensive belt of wire ran through No Man's Land about 20 yards in front of the first-line/fire trench. It was at least 10 yards wide and three feet high.
  • Often a second, or even third, parallel belt was erected at 50 yards, or more, distance from the fire-trench.
  • Access through the wire and into No Man's Land was usually by tunnels and openings that were carefully guarded at all times. The British in particular liked to dig 'saps', trenches that went forward of main trench and provided listening or observation posts to give pre-warning of possible enemy intentions.
  • At places where it was difficult to establish trenches, such as rocky places and rivers, extra heavy concentrations of wire were erected and extended across the obstacle, or the river, as a far as was considered necessary to exclude the enemy.
  • In places, on the Front, the layout of the wire-defences would be deliberately organised to funnel the advancing enemy into the killing zones of pre-registered machine guns and artillery.

Breaching the wire

From the end of 1914 onwards, considerable ingenuity and brute force was expended by all the belligerent armies in trying to overcome the vast fields of barbed-wire that confronted them on all sides.

The stratagems that were devised may be summarised as follows:

  • Going over the top: If the height of the barbed-wire entanglement was low, then it was possible to negotiate it by judiciously stepping over it with the rifle held at the port. A very famous cinematography shot from the British 1916 war film 'The Battle of the Somme' shows a small group of British soldiers doing just this. This would be a highly risky manoeuvre as the slowly moving and upright soldiers presented a maximum target to the enemy gunners and, indeed, one of the soldiers in the film is shown to collapse on to the wire as if wounded. Incredible though it may seem today, this upright attitude was the one that the majority of the British infantry was instructed to adopt when it advanced with such tragic consequences on the 1st July 1916. Obviously, from the same school of tactics by which certain élite British battalions insisted soldiers on guard in the trenches should stand up clear of the parapet better to see an advancing enemy.
  • Covering the wire: If the wire was at, say, chest height, stuffed fabric covers, wooden boards or ladders could be thrown over it and the barbs avoided and traversed. Infantrymen were also trained to throw themselves bodily onto the wire so their colleagues could walk or run, over them: surprisingly, many action photographs exist of infantrymen doing exactly this. In either event the soldier laying the covering, or himself, over the coils of barbed wire would have an unacceptably high profile and the soldier clambering over the covers, or the prone comrade an even higher one.
  • Cutting the wire: Every British Western Front unit was supplied with hand wire-cutters. Eventually, large numbers of a spring powered cutting device that fitted on the barrel of the standard British SMLE Mk.3 rifle were also widely available. The main problem for the putative wire-cutter was getting up close to the wire so as to be able to systematically cut it and clear it away. The ploy mentioned earlier of hanging of tins containing stones on the wire, so they rattled to detect movement, was also used to detect wire cutting. So stealth and surprise were not easily achieved by the would-be wire-cutters, even when working during the favoured hours of darkness.
  • Dragging the wire away: To pull away by hand a properly anchored concentration of wire was almost an impossibility and, of course, a group of soldiers attempting do this, day or night, would usually make superb targets for the enemy gunners. One of the major rationales put forward for the development of the tank was its potential to perform this wire-dragging task using grappling hooks. Another possibility was the flattening areas of the wire entanglements, and forcing corridors through it, with the caterpillar tracks and the hull of the tank, so the infantry could more easily pass over, or through, the wire. In the event the tank did perform these functions satisfactorily. But the threat of anti-tank and artillery fire was under-estimated and many tanks and their crews were lost during such wire-removal manoeuvres.
  • Using high explosive to blast the wire away:
  • a) By artillery gunfire: From the outset of generalised trench-warfare on the Western Front in late 1914, many commanders thought artillery was the answer to the disruption of barbed-wire defences. Unfortunately, in 1914 the British supply of artillery shells was concentrated on the shrapnel format and there were proportionally very few of the high-explosive type available. This situation still largely persisted at the time of the First Battle of the Somme in July 1916. Part of the disastrous outcome of the Battle was due to the failure of the British artillery to destroy the German barbed-wire defence in advance because the shrapnel shells available were quite unsuited for this purpose. Even when explosive shells were available, they often made the situation worse for the infantryman as they threw the barbed-wire coils into even more tangled and intractable masses. A situation which became even more pronounced, when the Germans introduced armoured barbed wire in 1917 and the shells only added to the complexity of the wire-layers' art.
  • b) Bangalore torpedoes: The British Army was quick to introduce onto the Western Front an explosive device that was invented in the early 1900's by the Indian Army for the destruction of booby-traps, fortifications and barricades. This device was called a Bangalore Torpedo after the army garrison in India where its development took place. Essentially, it was a long metal tube, filled with high explosive, and capped with a wooden nose cone. Using the pointed nose cone to guide the tube through the centre of the closely coiled strands of barbed wire, the Bangalore Torpedo was threaded at right angles through the wire entanglement, and set off with a fuse. The best effects were achieved when the tube was well clear of the ground - contrary to what is shown in many war-films. Provision was made to screw several lengths of tube together so that various widths of wire-entanglements could be dealt with. Usually the soldier(s) laying the Bangalore Torpedoes could remain prone and so be less exposed to counter-fire. In this way pathways through the dense belts of barbed wire could be quickly cleared and the advancing infantry could maintain its momentum of attack.

Postscriptum

It is interesting to see how the fear and loathing of the barbed-wire entanglements of the Western Front became imprinted in one of the most popular the war songs sang by the British troops wherever they went.

Of course, it is well known that in the Great War the regimental singsong was a much-favoured pass-time, morale builder and perhaps, most of all, a safety valve where fears and worries could be blunted with comradeship and jocularity. Such singsongs were also widely used to ease the tedium and weariness of the route - or forced march rather in the vein of the sea-man's shanty.

Many of the songs sung by the British Great War soldiers were popular Music Hall tunes - some of which were especially written for the Great War - others came down from much earlier wars and times.

However, the real favourite sing-song tunes were often ditties written by the troops themselves, based on well-known songs, tunes and even hymns. The topics, or subjects, of these songs were often the time-immemorial derogatory ones about officers and NCOs. Indeed, one particularly disliked British Army officer was driven from his post on the Western Front by a particularly scurrilous ditty written by his own land-based officers of the Naval Brigade. But there were many others dealing with the niggles of army life as encountered by these mainly volunteer or conscript soldiers. The lyrics of the ditties, often well larded with typical barrack room expletives, also gave a hidden insight into the deeper worries of the soldiers: as if by singing about them in a dismissive way that would itself help dispel the worry.

A classic verse from one of these army songs - called The old barbed wire* - dealt with the much dreaded barbed wire in a typically black humoured but flippant manner. It reads as follows and was sung to a tune especially written for it.

If you want to see the old battalion,

I know where they are.

I know where they are.

If you want to find the old battalion,

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,

Hanging on the old barbed wire.

As the song indicates, there is little doubt that the fear of ending ' hanging on the barbed wire' was a fate that haunted many of the front-line soldiers, and this ditty was one way of coming trying to come to terms with it.

  • This verse of a Great War army ditty is taken, with thanks, from a collection currently under compilation by R.J. Browne of the South Wales Branch of the Western Front Association.
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