Barbed Wire: Instrument of War

A few years ago, I decided to clean up the remains of some barbed wire on the farm. It was at least forty years old, rusty and easily broken when bent. But I made a barbed wire sculpture of a WWI soldier going “over the top.” It was my second attempt at using barbed wire as a sculpture medium and probably my last. Even with the leather gloves, it was easy to get poked if I wasn’t careful.

A few years ago, I cleaned up the remains of some barbed wire on the farm. It was at least forty years old, rusty and easily broken when bent. But I made a barbed wire sculpture of a WWI soldier going “Over the top.” It was my second attempt at using barbed wire as a sculpture medium and probably my last. Even with the leather gloves, it was easy to get snagged by the rusty barbs if I wasn’t careful.

Several weeks ago, my husband and I enclosed in part of our yard as a play area for our two new dogs. The ground was a bit uneven which left a few gaps at the bottom of the fence. Since both dogs are diggers and we live near a busy state highway, we decided to string a line of barbed wire along the bottom to deter any attempts at escape. Donning the thick leather gloves and helping to unroll the wire, made me think of all the barbed wire used during World War I.

Barbed wire had been part of ranching and livestock management since the 1870s, designed to keep animals in. During World War I, it became a crucial defensive component of trench warfare designed to keep the enemy out. Barbed wire entanglements were the first line of defense and without these it would have been relatively easy to attack the enemy especially in nighttime raids. With these obstacles it was often impossible to make it to the enemy’s trenches without suffering high casualties. The entanglements were resistant to machine gun fire, and heavy shelling often just resulted in more impenetrable entanglements.

Wiring parties were the nighttime norm in no man’s land where teams of soldiers on both sides worked to refortify their own entanglements or sabotage the enemy’s. The work was dangerous to say the least. The slightest sound could mean getting shot at by enemy machine guns which was why pickets changed from a metal blade that needed to be hammered into the ground to a corkscrew type that could be silently screwed in. Star shells illuminated no man’s land in an effort to catch enemy nighttime patrols and wiring parties. The sound of a star shell would send men to the ground, often on the very wire they were stringing. They had to remain still while enemy machine guns shot in their vicinity.

Display of WWI barbed wire and pickets in private museum in Romagne, France.

Display of WWI barbed wire and pickets (note the screw type in the back right) in a private museum in Romagne, France.

Barbed wired entanglements ranged from a few feet wide to thirty feet or more and ran the length of the trench. The barbed wire had more barbs than typical wire too which made it even more difficult to handle and string, or penetrate. The entanglements were often designed to channel and concentrate attacking troops, thus making them easier targets for the machine gunners. In fact, there is a whole military science related to the use of barbed wire and other barriers. James Moss’s Manual of Military Training from 1917 provides some of the basics of obstacle defense.

While significant advances in artillery and gas warfare occurred over the course of the war in an effort to break the stalemate of trench warfare with their barbed wire fortifications, it was eventually the development of the tank (tested initially in 1916) that was to be an important technological player in ending the deadlock.

As far as our dogs are concerned, after some initial sniffing around the bottom of the pen, they have stayed clear of the barbed wire and confined their digging to interior sections of their pen.