The terrible tangle

A century and a half after the filing of its patent, Michael E Haskew examines the thorny history of a warfighting implement that forever changed how battles were fought: barbed wire

It was a moonscape, a surreal and devastated vista: torn trees, torn bodies, mud, and craters pooled with fetid water. No Man’s Land was the epitome of war’s misery, the hallmark of destruction that was World War One. And in those days of killing on a scale never known before, one simple introduction to the battlefield had facilitated the stalemate on the Western Front, the trench warfare that stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier.

The premise was basic when an American cattle man from Illinois, Joseph Glidden, patented the first form of barbed wire in 1873. It seemed logical and benign enough, a twist of metal with prongs that extended slightly to dissuade adventuresome cows from tearing down an enclosure and wandering across the prairie. The prick of the barb would be enough to discourage a breakout from the pens and grazing lands of their owners. When Glidden filed his patent, barbed wire offered a simple solution to the rancher’s vexing problem of keeping his livestock together.

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