Thursday, 8 December 2011

The fascination of barbed wire

If 'trenches', 'mud', 'gas' and 'dugout' are words that strike a chord with anyone remotely interested in the Great War, then 'barbed wire' must also join this pantheon of classics. There is something deeply fascinating about this infernal invention, designed to both keep things out - and keep them in. As anyone with even the remotest interest in the 'range wars' – fought over the once open lands of the American West in the late nineteenth century – can tell you, barbed wire was created to stamp some form of authority on the vast plains of the West, keeping cattle in, and thereby contributing to the loss of the traditional livelihood of the Plains Indians. Perhaps because of this, there are US barbed wire collectors, museums even (and though I visited the West this year, even I dare not seek one out, for fear of what might happen - a barbed wire collection in the making). The barbed wire of the two world wars had a similar, but grimmer, purpose - keeping men out, and keeping men in. Difficult to cut with shrapnel shell or individual cutters, wire served to give protection to the defender, and all too often would see the attacker 'hanging on the old barbed wire'. Though often simple strands early in the war, the thickets which developed as the war progressed became muse to the modernist artists who depicted the murdered landscape in angles and shards, the barbs rending the sky in silhouette. And while British barbs look weedy and easy to cut - German square-section wire looks brutal, even today. How must it have looked to the men facing it? There is no one alive to tell us.

For details of Peter Doyle's battlefield work, click here

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