BARB-ARIC! A Brief History of Barbed Wire


Few things are more emblematic of WW1 and the barbarism of modern warfare than the black and white images of soldiers crowded into narrow trenches, overlooked by a fence of barbed wire.

By 1918 , almost a million miles of barbed wire had been strung across the Fields of Flanders alone, not to mention any other battle fields – that’s enough to circle the earth 40 times!

So who invented barbed wire?

Joseph Glidden, a farmer from Illinois, first invented this tricky track in 1874 as a new method of livestock control. Made from two intertwined strands of wire, connected by barbs of sharp metal, curious cows in search of freedom got a painful shock when they pressed against it. Other American inventors went head to head for patent rights as barbed wire revolutionized cattle herding in America.

What’s that got to do with war?

As early as the 1880’s, we can see various military units across the globe adopting this new invention and using it to prevent enemy infiltration. British Army manuals were issued with instructions on how to lay down barbed wire perimeters in 1888. U.S. Forces used it in the Spanish American war. It was also used widely in the Russo-Japanese War.

So by WW1, barbed wire was already a common sight in the landscape of war. As the war developed into static trench warfare on the Western Front, barbed wire was used on both sides of No Man’s Land in zig zagged strips, often running parallel to trenches, with row after row of prickly wire, making advancement by foot impossible. During the war, barbed wire was used as a major measure of defence, second only to munitions as it was so difficult to destroy!

Wire parties… not as much fun as they sound

Unlucky soldiers might be tasked with joining a wiring party over the top of the trenches- not as fun as it might seem! This was one of the more dangerous jobs, sneaking out into the dark of night to lay new barriers, or repair damaged wires in silence.  Rubber or wooden mallets were used to pin the wire down with wooden stakes, with blankets used to muffle the sound preventing detection.

Barbed wire and the birth of no-man’s land

Barbed wire made advancement almost impossible on either side. Even tanks were limited in their efforts.  Extended barrages preceded large operations like the Somme offensive in 1916 to shatter the morale of the enemy, making them both tactically and physically weak and vulnerable to the offence.
Clothing brands such as Turnbull & Asser produced ‘barbed wire resistant’ uniforms for British troops, also selling fortified gloves. Wire cutting blades were fitted to the end of rifles in the style of a bayonet.

So there we have it. Like many military inventions, barbed wire started life innocently enough. As they say, it’s not the weapon that’s dangerous, but the people who use them. Stay tuned for more investigations into World War One.

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Written by Sarah Ashbridge

Office monkey by day, forensic archaeologist by night, Sarah Ashbridge is a jack-of-all-trades and the master of one: the forensic identification the War Dead. She trained originally as an Egyptologist, but interests in the history of death and burial saw her make the step into archaeology, completing an MSc in Forensic Archaeology and Crime Scene Investigation at the University of Bradford. Armed with an ever-increasing library of books, a handful of illustration pens and a brand new trowel, Sarah writes our regular #WWWednesday column, working towards her PhD in Forensic Archaeology.

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