In 1867, an American cattle rancher patented, 'Barbed Wire'. A simple invention that revolutionised stock control. A wire structure punctuated every 6 inches by a curly barb- so tantalisingly simple, but effective, in keeping stock from straying from designated areas. It did not take too long before military planners decided to adapt this bucolic device to matters bellicose.
Not only could the wire limit the meandering of the curious ovine, bovine and swine, but its barbs could prevent ingress/egress of the casual interloper. The device was cheap to manufacture, easy and quick to install and performed its designated role with reckless efficiency. It found limited utility in the American Civil War and the Anglo-Boar Wars but it would make its main debut, and prickly presence felt, during the maelstrom of the Great War (1914-1918). After the flurry of military offences at the opening phase of the conflict, combatants quickly realised, that if the war was to be conducted, without further catastrophic casualties (a forlorn hope), a defensive stance would have to be maintained, albeit temporary, until offensives could be undertaken from a position of tactical stability and strength.
At the outbreak of war the concept of adopting a defensive stance was inconceivable and an anaethema to all nations who took part, with the exception of poor Belgium. The accepted and unified dogma dictated that success on the battlefield can only be achieved by aggressive offensive action. Those reliant on static defensive positions would cede the initiative to the aggressor and thusly be doomed to react and be compliant to their enemy's whim and will. And of course, this made perfect sense from an August 1914 perspective. For the French, right from the start, an aggressive attack was considered absolutely essential to carry the day. Sheer moral/morale fortitude was the most respected martial quality. Even the reality of 'modern war', made manifest, would not deter the French offensive spirit. Thus, French trenches always had an air of temporary occupation. The trench system seemed perfunctory to the industrious trench construction of the Germans and, perhaps, the British. Let us not judge the Gauls too harshly. After all, the initial German advance had captured vast swathes of sacred French land. It was a matter of national pride that drove the French to undertake their disastrous offensives of 1914/1915. Let us not forget that the last five months of 1914 accounted for one million French casualties. The flower of French manhood had been squandered in ill-conceived offensives and the French army would never truly recover from the ruinous loss incurred during those scant months of 1914.
By the late months of 1914, it became apparent to even the most hardheaded proponents of offensive action that static defence had become sovereign on the battlefield- the reason(s) are manifold and interrelated. Tis a grand mystery that the power and strength of the defensive position were not fully appreciated by military strategists and thinkers prior to the Great War. All the elements that contributed to the strength of 'defence' were there to see. In the end, I suspect the various militaries wanted to conduct and enact war according to 'Victorian' social theory, of the time: attack is always bold, heroic, glorious and manly. In contrast, defence is somehow stolid, cowardly and not consistent with the best military virtues (whatever that might mean). Perhaps, the 'Victorian' generals of the Great Conflict could not conceive of war in any other way. They could not conceive how a defensive tactic could eventuate unto a strategic battlefield victory. However, an active, responsive defence, could and would, win battles and wars. As an example consider the battle of Verdun: the Germans battered the Verdun salient from three sides with heavy artillery. The Germans guessed correctly, that the French would defend this patch of land until the last man due to a misplaced sense of honour- a tactic not in keeping with sanity at this stage of the war (February 1916). Equally, senseless, the Germans could not resist throwing in their troops, wave after wave on well-defended positions. They should have stuck to their original plan and their guns that dictated that the artillery would inflict the majority of casualties. But initial success with relatively small numbers of troops goaded the Germans to change their master plan. Never a great idea to change a well-thought-out plan ad hoc. In the end, the Germans suffered as badly as the French and after 6 months of heavy fighting, the French achieved a Pyrrhic victory, of sorts. Also, consider the Kaiserschalkt of March 1918. A close-run thing and the British were but a ferret hair (ferrets have very fine hair/fur) from being pushed to the channel ports. However, the British with French support managed to halt the Germans and begin their own offensive culminating in the armistice of November 1918. In this instance, the attacking Germans not only lost the battle but also lost the war.
As implied, barbed wire was, in many ways, the perfect instrument for the maintenance of a defensive line. Often employed in layers, many yards deep, it was not designed to be impenetrable to infantry; its presence was designed to impede and delay. The attacking infantry would scurry looking for gaps caused by the preceding artillery barrage. More often than not, there was no gap to be had as the shells rarely achieved their purpose. In most instances, the wire was tossed, reformed, rearranged, augmented and reaffirmed in a more effective and deadly impediment to pedestrian progress. Indeed, could there be a more insidious, devilish, humdrum device of war? So banal, so commonplace and so destructive, both physically and psychologically. Men supine, exerting and terrified would have to rely on metal shears, and iron nerves, to carve a path through this dense, oppressive, grasping jumble of wretched steel. And as the men struggled, the machine gun chatter would decimate their ranks, producing scarecrows by the bushel, embraced in a phantasmal, entangled, dance of death.
The coming of the tank in July 1916 gave the Allies the edge to cut the wire. Not only could the rhomboidal behemoths cross the standard German trench, but they could also crush and carve a path for the following infantry. What took artillery days and men hours to effect, the tank did so in mere seconds. It was not the perfect solution, however, as the tracks of the primitive vehicles would become rapidly clogged when traversing thick belts of wire rendering/rending the tank inert, and vulnerable to the ubiquitous drum roll of shell fire.
Enough of the waxing lyrical, Flaxen! True eloquence lies with the men who experienced the horrors and faced the grim reality of war. I have no more to add.