- from the War Budget November 4th, 1915
- 'Barbed Wire'
- by W. C . Fitz-Gerald
How the Gunners Deal with War's Worst Device
Ask the veteran in the foremost works what he fears most and hear him say, "Wire"as a man of few and fervid words. Not chlorine gas, mind you, or high- explosive shells. No lobbed grenades-or charges of T.N.T. thrown from silent guns, but just barbed wire the accursed web. unseen and cruel and unyielding, that baffles valour and turns the dashing advance into a ghastly shambles.
Two hundred yards of the stuff was overlooked by us in the dread battle of Neuve Chapelle where the Germans were driven mad with the noise of our artillery, its dazing concussion and frightful continuous havoc. Just 200 yards of galvanised iron filament; a maze of half-seen barbs and glittering strands, impassable as bell's gate itself.
The wire lay in a hollow, and the trench behind it gave out an unending crackle of machine gunsthat dreadful weapon which spouts 600 shots a minute when in full blast. As well try to storm the sky while that wire waved back and forth, with limp bodies floating on it like tragicomic marionettes.
First the Cameronians tried with all the glorious verve they showed at Lucknow, and again on flame-swept Spion Kop in the Boer War. It was only martyrdom. Colonel Bliss and his adjutant went down together leading the first line. At length the sole surviving officer, a mere boy of the Special Reserve, could only collect 150 men of all that grand force. Those who remained alive will never hear of barbed wire without a qualm of the heart.
It stopped them as stone walls could never have done. They tore blindly at the swinging strandsstruck at them with the butts stamped on the stuff until puttees and boot-were shred to ribbons. But the barbs remained, and fire from the trench behind was now more than flesh and blood could bear. The Cameronians lay down at last, bleeding and pantinglay there in the open, a living mosaic played upon with universal shell, half shrapnel, half H.E." that burst with hideous double bark, the last word in the satanic science of slaughter.
Then the .Middlesex crowded out to the attack and came into converging machine- gun firea zone in which none, could live for many minutes. Yet they, too, got as far as that terrible wire. They, too. backed it with maniacal fury and backed in vain, for the supports-were well plantedline after line of stakesendless strands and barbs; horizontal, perpendicular and oblique, the whole supported and stayed like the rigging of a phantom ship.
The famous ''Die-Hards" died hard indeed, with bands red-raw from fighting the wire, and uniform rent to tatters.
From their own trench unto this obstacle the 2nd Middlesex left a deep lane of dead and dying. 120 yards long. "A sight so poignant," a spectator mourns. "that men behind them, coming suddenly on that bloody trail, broke down completely and wept at the sheep pityat the undying glory of it."
Such is the effect of barbed wire. If is largely to deal with this awful stuff that high- explosive shell is called for instead of common shrapnel. The right guns, with the right munitions lavishly used, sweep wire entanglements away as the hurricane sweeps away a spider's well. Barbed wire is essentially American. The great cattle ranches called for it hundreds of miles of grassy range where half-wild stock roamed, and the famous cow-boy rode up and down as the guardian of a "farm" half as big as France.
Barbed wire was soon seen in South Africa, where the Boer pastoralists hailed it as a really useful invention which indeed it was. Then came the war, and with it bitter new lessons for our military leaders. Coils of wire are heavy to carry. But the Boers were not troubled with the transport of it; there were big supplies en every farm.
Our losses from this new obstacle are now a matter of history. All manner of traps were laid for us in the long grass. Men and horses! trying to storm a position, floundered and fell into a wicked network of hidden wires, fn the case of cavalry the long barbs tore and stung the horses into frenzy. They lashed out and threw whole squadrons into hopeless confusion, making it an easy matter for marksmen to pick off our officers and men.
We soon equipped our infantry with pliers and wire-cutter, but even so advantage always lay with the defenders, and our advance was slow, toilsome, and costly to a fearful degree. Invisible by day, the trip-wires made night attack sheer madness; and for a long time the Boers had things their own way.
In the Russo-Japanese and Balkan wars the transport of barbed wire in large quantities was a difficulty which offset its value very seriously. The present upheaval has shown all its military possibilities, as well as ways to render these of no account. It is the eternal play of offence and defence, with no finality on either side.
At Liege General Leman trapped the German hosts in barbed wire, here fashioned into a vast electrocuting net by the passage through the strands of an electric current of 1,000 volts. Thus held, the German infantry were mown down by machine-gun fire and common shrapnel, till the slaughter was on a scale never before approached in war. Again and again were they caught in electrified wire entanglements, especially when trying to cross the Nethe, between Duffel and Lierre.
Their officer scouts, tearing from town to town at night in high-powered ears were often found completely beheaded by wires stretched across the road at just the right height. So terribly efficient was this trap found that the Germans tried to counter it by means of a special car fitted with huge curving knives. These extended from the bonnet over the top and down again at the back. The idea was that the car might drive at night right into these deadly wires, then lift and cut them without the smallest jar.
As to the general maze of barbed strands which make frontal attack impossible- many devices are already in use to deal with an obstacle so grave. Thus there are special rockets with life-lines attached and grappling-hooks at the end to engage the network, and so enable our men to haul it down in real "tug o' war."
The French have harpoons, or hooked spears, which they say arc far better than sending men out with hand pliers to cut the wire. Volunteers are readily found for this work, but quite eighty per cent of them never come back, being killed, wounded, or captured.
The war-wizards are now experimenting with a new type of gun which will shoot the harpoon as that weapon does which is used by modern whalers in the high northern seas. It will thus be seen that barbed wire is as fearful a menace as even the Great War can show, with all its genius for destruction. It has one defect, however, from the point of view of those whom it defends. Should the storming-party fail, it is often hard for the defenders to get out of their own "bird-cage" and drive home an assault of their own.
At the same time barbed wire has had everything to do with the condition of stalemate to which trench warfare has been reduced. It has had much to do with the changing of artillery, too. and the very, explosives used in our Army. For when all's said. this is an artillery war. The guns must prepare the way with tornados of flame and steel of volcanic force, before which barbed wire net-works are brushed aside, and trench parapets blown in till the trench becomes a living tomb for all within it.
"Fire is everything, as Napoleon said...and "and the rest is of small account."
Back to Index