Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Wilfred Owen , ‘Exposure’ (1917)
That wire or barbed wire could become a feature of sustained poetic interest would have seemed inconceivable before WWI began. A late nineteenth-century innovation (and credited to Joseph Glidden in Illinois), the term had, in fact, been omitted from the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in yet another instance which challenged its intended status as ‘inventory’ of the language as a whole. ‘Of a horse’, the OED instead specified under barbed, describing an animal which is ‘armed or caparisoned with a barb’. That steel and iron could be barbed or hooked was confirmed by evidence from the Bible, as well as eighteenth-century translations of the Odyssey or, most recently, a translation of Homer’s Iliad from 1870. In the dictionary, barbs are described in relation to spears and arrows, plants, and hooks — but not wire. Only in September 2009 would barbed wire gain its own entry in the OED (here as part of the on-going revision for its third edition).
In 1914-15, as Andrew Clark confirms in the Words in War-Time archive, these gaps In the historical record of words and their use could, however, seem all too plain. He noted down the absence of barbed wire in the OED, while tracking its sudden prominence – as adjective, noun, and verb — in contemporary news reporting. ‘They have prepared elaborate trenches, and barbed wire approaches to protect the position of the heavy guns behind the hillcrests’, an early report in the Daily Express stated on Saturday 19th September 1914. ‘The Austrians retreated on Yanov, where there were strong entrenchments with barbed wire entanglements and other obstacles’, another extract in the archive confirms. By October, as the Evening News declared, barbed wire was seen as a salient component of the war experience, being placed on a level with shrapnel in defining the perceptual reality of conflict, and the difficulties and dangers which this brought:
This barbed-wire war, which, next to the German shrapnel, is about the only thing our men frankly express a fear for (Evening News October 1st 1914)
To see shrapnel and barbed wire put on the same level can perhaps surprise. Yet other evidence which Clark assembled in the archive supports this view, stressing the sense of powerlessness which both could inflict. In contemporary news reporting, barbed wire can, of course, be used to evoke an idealised heroic disregard for physical circumstance, alongside an exemplary fearlessness; ‘Neither ditch nor barbed wire could stop them’, the Scotsman comments in another extract, here celebrating the Highlanders’ change against the German army in October 1914. Yet, as the extract below suggests, its connotations were often very different. The original agricultural uses of barbed wire were distanced. Instead it was repeatedly translated into a formidable – and forbidding – aspect of life of the Western Front. ‘Talk about entanglements!’, Private G. Watts of the Cheshire regiment exclaims, for example, in another ‘Letter from the Front’ which was subsequently reprinted in the Daily Express:
Give me shells and bullets before them. A man never knows how useless struggling is till he gets into loose barbed wire. Every movement mixes him worse, and he is lucky if he can keep his face out of the spikes. Some of our chaps will carry ugly marks all their lives. My legs are pretty well ornamented, and one boot is cut four times across the upper and toe (Daily Express, October 20th 1914)
Even if it had been used in conflict before the onset of WW1,it is clear that the use of barbed wire after 1914 would capture attention, and imagination, in highly distinctive ways. Long before Wilfred Owen, barbed wire could serve as a form of shorthand for human vulnerability, and the toll that war could bring. An article in the Daily Express in May 1915 focusses, for example, on the ‘death-tortured no-man’s land’, depicting the ‘bullet-ploughed ground between the blood-spattered hedges of barbed wire’ (Daily Express, 15 May 1915).
As the Words in War-Time archive confirms, barbed wire was, in effect, to be complete with its own sub-lexicon (and other significant patterns of change) in what became another characteristic aspect of writing trench warfare. Entanglements, as Clark noted, was another term in constant use in 1914-1915, bringing ready familiarity to a form which, while a long-established part of military campaigns, was also consolidated in distinctive ways in the early months of WWI. Entanglements, as a range of citations affirms, were, in effect, to become synonymous with barbed wire;
Clark’s private life, too, confirmed its pervasiveness. A letter from his brother in Scotland commented on the wire-entanglements along the coast in Scotland in November 1914. Clark’s diary in December 1914 likewise provides a careful description (and diagram) of a barbed-wire entanglement as encountered on a visit to the training camp in Braintree; its short stakes are connected by two rows of wire, and with additional wire looped and relooped between the rows to form an intentionally impermeable defence.
Yet, as Clark added, entanglement in this sense was another absence from the OED as it then existed. Added later, the dictionary would usefully track usage back to 1834. It provided, too, the definition, 3. Mil. An extensive barrier arranged so as to impede an enemy’s movements; an abatis formed of trees and branches, or an obstruction formed of stakes and barbed wire. Yet, as Clark would have commented, this arguably misses the point, as least as far as Words in War-Time is concerned – in WWI, the key issue was the seamlessness by which wire and entanglements came to be yoked together – in language as in life.** Features such as these, and their frequent iteration whether in popular news reports and private letters, combined to give the resonant image of ‘the wire’ in the diction of WW1 – where the ellipsis of the characteristic barbed serves as an all too eloquent testimony of the prevalence, and deadly familiarity, of this aspect of conflict.
Entanglement. The OED’s definition (see entanglement (n.), OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 10 February 2015.) merges the various physical forms which entanglements can have. While accompanying evidence –see below — shows the historical development, what is absent is the clustered usages, and marked connotations, of WWI — in ways which would, for Clark, clearly justify his self-appointed enterprise
1834 J. S. Macaulay Field Fortif. iv. 83 The boughs of the brushwood..interlacing with one another, will thus form a very good obstacle, called an entanglement.
1876, 1879 [see wire entanglement].
1899 Westm. Gaz. 17 Nov. 2/1 Where a wood enters into the scheme of defence, an abattis–in this case called an ‘entanglement’–forms naturally one of the best resources of the defenders.
1916 ‘Boyd Cable’ Action Front 47 Slowly and cautiously, with the officer leading, they began to wend their way out under their own entanglements.
1917 [see wire n. 1 e].
1922 Blunden Shepherd 69 They’ve all died on the entanglements