Barbed Wire

Reviel Netz

Mark out, on the two-dimensional surface of the earth, lines across which no movement is allowed and you have one of the key themes of history. Draw a closed line preventing movement from outside to inside the line, and you define landed property. Draw the same line preventing movement from inside the line to outside, and you define compulsory confinement. Draw an open line preventing movement in either direction and you define a border. Topological structures of this kind range from absolute barriers that make movement across them physically impossible, through more subtle ones whose function is to make movement inconvenient and therefore undesirable, to wholly symbolic definitions of limits, respected only because that’s how a society or an international consensus works. Even a symbolic definition of space, however, depends on the possibility of force being used in defence of spatial bounds, if only as a last resort. The role of force in the history of the prevention of movement – force in its most literal sense, of physical pressure applied to bodies – means that such a history must be one of violence and the infliction of pain.

1

In the 1870s, with the extermination of the buffalo and the Amerindian way of life, a new order emerged on the plains of the American West. At first glance, you might think that this was simply a matter of a change of species and ethnicity. Instead of herds of wild buffalo, semi-feral Texas longhorn cows now roamed the plains – descendants of the cows originally brought to America by the Spanish colonisers and allowed to run wild. Remarkably self-sufficient, the longhorn cow was not wholly unlike the buffalo it replaced.

The Amerindians for their part were replaced by Anglo-Americans and Hispanics, who moved around on horseback, herding the cows together and driving them east to be killed. As before, grass provided the primary source of energy; it was consumed by vast numbers of large quadrupeds – more than 11 million of them by 1880. These animals roamed freely, though under the supervision of small bands of cowhands. Some customs did change, however. The cows were transported to and from the Plains: they were not, as a rule, killed there. A cow typically began its life in Texas; was first herded north to the Plains; then herded eastwards (sometimes by rail), often to be better fed and cared for, however briefly, near a major centre of slaughter – almost always Chicago. Unlike the buffaloes, cattle were a marketable commodity. At the same time a division of labour was entailed in the handling of them.

The new human relationship with cows was much more one-sided than that with buffaloes had been, if only because the organisation and technology of capitalist America made it possible to move animals around on a massive scale. Two problems thus arose: how could you farm the land while managing large herds of animals and, more fundamentally, how could you keep those herds under control at all times? There was no question of their enjoying the independence of movement that the buffaloes had had. Human control over space is predicated on having control also over the animals that live there.

In the late 19th century the US Government offered incentives to those who settled on the land, especially farmers. The Homestead Act of 1862 granted 160 acres to private settlers after they had lived in the same place for five years. The cattle economy, on the other hand, was by its nature inimical to any arrangement that involved a narrowly bounded space: what made cows so valuable was that they could find their own pasture. The problem therefore was to restrict their spatial freedom, while keeping them profitable.

To begin with, the West was not fenced at all. Why would a ranger want to fence in his cattle? Not only were they able to survive quite well without it, but it was easy for a small number of men on horseback to round them up and take them to market. They might wander off from time to time, but they didn’t need constant supervision. Control could be maintained in other ways: geology, the presence of water especially, would determine where they grazed; different herds would be assigned their own space within a given area – along riverbanks, for example. The technique involved patrolling the edges of the grazing, and driving the cows towards the centre. Failing this, the animals could be controlled symbolically, by branding them.

With the expansion of agriculture, the capital invested in fencing grew immensely. In 1871, a US Department of Agriculture report estimated that nearly $2 billion had already been spent, and that the annual expenditure was running at something like $200 million: for every dollar invested in livestock, another dollar was required to protect crops from wandering animals. The purpose of the report was to suggest a change in the way fences were used: instead of keeping animals out, they should be used to keep them in.

The usual fencing materials were scarce, and the most traditional – wood – was pretty much unobtainable. There wasn’t enough of the right sorts of stone, and Osage orange hedges – which were commonly used in the West – were hard to transplant and, as G. Basalla notes in The Evolution of Technology (1988), they ‘cast shadows on adjoining crops, usurped valuable growing space, and provided a shelter for weeds, vermin and insects’. The major drawback, however, was that it took an Osage orange hedge three or four years to grow to its full height.

In time the burgeoning rail network would provide the solution. Wood was already being shipped from the East in vast quantities to be used for house building, and the railways themselves required huge amounts of timber for bridges, sleepers and so on. On the other hand, to ship out wooden fencing was unprofitable, both because of the vastness of the spaces needing to be enclosed and because of the inefficiency involved in transporting such loads across enormous distances. A new type of fencing was clearly required.

In 1873 Henry Rose, who farmed near Waterman Station in Illinois, thought of a new way to control a ‘breachy’ cow. (‘Breachy’ was Rose’s word.) He attached a wooden board, studded with sharp pieces of wire, to the cow’s head, so that whenever the animal tried to squeeze through a narrow gap in a fence, it caused itself pain. After a while, it occurred to Rose that the wire could be attached to planks of wood along the fence itself. The experiment worked: the cow learned not to go near the fence.

Other farmers conducted similar trials. In 1861, a ten-year-old called Adrian Latta had attached sharp spikes to the bottom of his family’s fences to prevent hogs from coming onto their land. ‘The hogs got through a few times after the barbs were put in,’ he noted. ‘However, the barbs had the desired effect as the owner saw his hogs were getting terribly marked and kept them at home.’ What set Rose apart was that he took the trouble to patent his idea and to have it displayed at a farm exhibition held in de Kalb, Illinois.

At this stage, iron barbs supplemented wood rather than substituting for it. Wire fencing already existed ‘for enclosing’ – in the words of one advertisement – ‘railroads, canals, fields, cattle pastures, cemeteries, gardens, henneries, and for ornamental garden work, grape and rose trellises etc’. But it was delicate stuff, and fluctuations in temperature made it more so. Clearly, it would not keep a herd of cattle in its place. On the other hand, to break down a wire fence, a cow needed to bear down on it repeatedly. Reinforced with barbs which would cause it pain, the wire fence would be impregnable.

By 1874, six barbed-wire patents had been registered, and by 1876, half the share in one of the main patents had been acquired by Washburn and Moen, a Massachusetts-based iron and steel company. What made barbed wire so competitive? In 1880, Washburn and Moen, who were by then producing more of it than anyone else, made the following cost comparison with wooden fencing, taking as their example 40 rods (100 metres) of three-bar fences:

Wood
1000 feet pine fencing$15
80 posts$16
15 lbs nails$0.60
Labour$2.50
Total$34.10
Barbed Wire
136 lbs barbed wire$14.96
40 posts$8
2 lbs staples$0.20
Labour$0.50
Total$23.66

The beauty of the comparison is obvious: the barbed wire itself is priced marginally below the price of the main alternative, pine – i.e. it is priced artificially high. What makes it competitive is that it is much lighter and therefore cheaper to erect: fewer posts and nails are needed, and much less labour. In other ways, the new fencing technology resembled that used in the railroad and the telegraph, both of which also consisted of a multitude of wooden supports set at right angles to long lines of metal. It resembled them, too, in the immense lengths of metal involved, and in the way they reshaped topographical space. But where railroads and telegraph lines simply connected distant points for humans, barbed wire marked out boundary lines for animals.

By 1880, something like 50,000 miles of barbed-wire fence were in place. Marketing wasn’t difficult, and some distributors had quite spectacular ways of showing what their product could do. At an exhibition in San Antonio in 1876, John Gates (then just an agent for the manufacturers, later an iron magnate in his own right) sealed off part of the town’s central plaza with barbed-wire fencing and packed it with dozens of fierce-looking longhorn steers. When the animals charged the fence, the pain of the metal tearing into their flesh first made them even more angry, causing them to charge again, only to be wounded again, and at last to back away, having finally learned that the fence was best avoided.

There were by this time few farmers in the American West who didn’t know that barbed wire provided a cheap, flexible and effective means of controlling the movement of cattle without human intervention. The artificially high prices didn’t hold. In 1880, the actual prices paid were in fact about half those listed in the Washburn and Moen comparison. By 1885 they had halved again and by 1897, more than halved a second time. As the distances covered by the fencing increased, so did its uses. Although it was invented with the arable farmer in mind, it was taken up almost immediately by the cattle-owners.

Capital had begun to pour into the West in the 1870s. By 1876, more than 200,000 cattle were being moved north from Texas every year. Hundreds of companies, formed mainly on the Atlantic seaboard and in the UK, tried to cash in. A US Government report from that decade pointed out that ‘the average cost per head of the management of large herds is much less than that of small herds. The tendency in the range cattle business of late years has therefore been towards a reduction in the number of herds, and generally towards the consolidation of the business in the hands of individuals, corporations, and associations.’ Larger herds require more space, and the larger the space, the lower the ratio between perimeter size and the area enclosed. Thus fencing became cheaper as large herds grew larger still – the logic of capitalism at work. Even the huge open spaces of the West no longer seemed endless. Lines of fencing were put up to define where companies grazed their cattle, whether or not they had a legal title to the land. In 1885, it was reported that almost four and half million acres had been illegally fenced in this way. Add to this several million acres of legally fenced grazing – in Texas especially, where the legislation was more favourable to large land-holdings – and you get just over 16 million acres in all ringed round with barbed wire: almost the same amount of land as had been parcelled out as a result of the Homestead Act. About a decade after barbed wire was introduced, it was being used to enclose cattle and farmland alike. Ranging – letting cows roam free – was gradually being transformed into ranching.

Part of the reason was the desire to curb the natural tendency of cows to move en masse towards the south in bad weather. The solution, created gradually by individual landowners, was a barrier running from east to west across the entire Texas panhandle. Even those cows that had not yet been fenced in could be relied on to stay in the north and not compete for southern grazing. In the severe winters of 1885-86 and 1886-87, heavy blizzards drove the animals south in their tens of thousands but, like the steers in the San Antonio plaza, they couldn’t break through the barbed wire, and many thousands died of cold and starvation. Not all of them reached the so-called ‘drift’ fences, but those that did – the ones with the greatest chance of surviving – were crushed against the fences by pressure from the other animals.

Barbed wire, it seemed, could stop animals, no matter how many, no matter how desperate they were. At first, manufacturers, anxious that ordinary barbs might not be sufficient, erred on the side of caution, supplying them in sharper and larger forms. Cattle crashing against the wire – as in San Antonio – were seriously gouged and in warm, humid summers open wounds led to screw-worm infestation. This was especially vexatious for range cattlemen, who did not benefit from barbed wire themselves, but lost stock as a result of it. Farmers, who were used to controlling their animals without barbed wire, also suffered from it, when it was erected by the railroad, for example. Bills to prohibit its use were introduced in several states: always defeated in legislatures in the West, they did, for brief periods, become law in some Eastern states. A compromise had to be found, and gradually the barbs became less sharp (less ‘vicious’, to use the technical term). In 1876, Parker Wineman of Illinois boasted of his barbs, they ‘will be sure to penetrate the skin and give pain’; five years later, Joseph Connelly of Pennsylvania claimed that his variety of wire would ‘resist force and turn stock without entangling or otherwise injuring them’.

As humans learned more about animal pain, so animals learned more about human violence. A commercial leaflet encouraging the use of barbed wire advises the farmer to lead young horses ‘to the fence and let them prick their noses by contact with it ... they will let it thoroughly alone thereafter.’ Farmers have always been mindful of the wellbeing of their horses, but cows were expected to get the hang of barbed wire through experience. Finally, the stage was reached where manufacturers, exploiting the fact that animals were capable of learning from experience, produced more conspicuous barbs, which, although clearly capable of directly inflicting pain, functioned mainly as an indirect form of intimidation (in the technical terminology, the barbs became more ‘obvious’). By the end of the 1880s, the success of barbed wire as a tool for the education of cows was complete. At the same time, more and more cows were fenced in, rather than fenced out, as part of a general move to establish land-holdings, but also in order to ‘protect’ the cows from the winter stampede to the south. They were fenced in to protect them from fences.

Early on, the interest of the barbed-wire producers was narrowly focused on the American West, but it wasn’t long before they saw the opportunities afforded by the huge expanse of the Argentinian pampas. As the West had once been, the pampas were populated by Amerindians and provided a habitat for many species of feral and semi-feral animals. By 1879, the Amerindians had been wiped out and by 1907 it was estimated that there was enough barbed wire in Argentina to go round the perimeter of the country 140 times. Washburn and Moen scoured the world’s prairie lands, and by 1884 could claim that they had obtained patents covering Australia, New Zealand, India, Italy, Sweden, Austria and Denmark, ‘5,470,952 miles in which no barbed wire can be sold without direct infringement ... a territory compared with the territory of the United States as two is to one’, and anticipated ‘300,000 tons of sales per annum’. At the end of the 19th century, there was more barbed wire outside the United States than inside.

By 1914, barbed wire had become a common feature of European agriculture, protecting crops from animals, and animals from other animals. Elsewhere, it helped to effect the ecological transformation of land not yet firmly brought under human control. In Australia, it was used to exterminate unwanted wild animals – simply by fencing off water sources. But it was in the wake of the railways that barbed wire became global – it was used to protect track from stray animals. From 1899, the leading manufacturer was the American Steel and Wire Company. In its first eight years, 34 per cent of its output was exported; in the next eight years, 44 per cent was exported. But the importance of the American market should not be overlooked: with more than 100,000 tons consumed annually, the US was always, and probably still is, the mainstay of the demand. It remains the centre of the barbed-wire economy.

2

In October 1899, the Boers of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State declared war on the British. By June 1900, the main Boer towns had been taken, and the war seemed to be over. It seemed to have been a conventional war: strongholds besieged, troops deployed, victories in battle, followed by daring advances on foot. But the war was not over, and what followed would not be conventional.

Regrouping and rethinking their strategy, the Boers started a guerrilla war. Small units of mounted soldiers – ‘commandos’ – harassed the British, cutting railway lines and staging small-scale ambushes. The Boers intended to make invasion a costly business for the British Army and, above all, to stir the Boer communities of the Cape and Natal into rebellion so that, with the whole of South Africa in arms, an occupation would be untenable.

The aims of the British Army were now to contain and subdue the last of the Boer forces, and to prevent guerrillas entering British-controlled areas. Winning the war was no longer a question of battles and sieges, but of the invading force’s ability to enforce a thoroughgoing occupation. The sparsely cultivated veld had to be brought under complete control. To prevent Boer commandos being sheltered by their own people, civilian life – largely agricultural – was broken up. Farms were burned and non-combatants brought into what were called ‘refugee camps’ or ‘concentration camps’. Mobility was crucial. The British relied largely on the railways, the Boers on horses. In order both to secure their communications and to block the movement of horses, the British fortified the railways. A complicated pattern of parallel barbed-wire fences, with thick entanglements stretching between them, was extended along the entire system. This would have been more than enough against the horses (wild animals often got caught in the wire); and although humans could cut through the wire, it was a time-consuming business and the guerrillas who undertook it made stationary targets. At intervals of about a mile at first, and then less as the war progressed, small forts or blockhouses were set up. Made of prefabricated iron, these, too, were surrounded by thick barbed-wire entanglements and manned by small units of about six soldiers, armed with a new weapon – the machine-gun. To cross the lines, the Boers had to make their approach as far away as possible from the forts, and begin the laborious process of cutting the wire under machine-gun fire.

By 1902, the veld was criss-crossed by 35 such lines, next to the railroads and beyond them – the longest stretched for 175 miles. There were about eight thousand blockhouses and thousands of miles of wire. As in the American West, an immense space was brought under control. The guerrilla war eventually petered out; the dwindling commando bands were rounded up and in the summer of 1902 the Boers surrendered.

Armies had always been interested in obstacles that might halt or deter an advancing enemy, but as their ability to sustain themselves in the open increased, field fortification became more important than walls and castles. Whatever space a mobile army occupied in the 19th century was turned into a temporarily fortified area by means of trenches and other obstacles. In 1862, A.T. Mahan listed the principal kinds of trench still in use: trous-de-loup (deep pits dug in the ground, often with sharp stakes at the bottom); abattis (limbs of trees, entangled, their points facing the enemy); palisades (rows of stakes, essentially functioning as a fence); fraises (like palisades, but pointed towards the enemy); stoccades (palisades constructed of small trees instead of stakes); chevaux-de-frise (a complicated starlike structure with stakes rising from it in all directions); small pickets (short stakes, no more than three feet in length, with cords, brambles and so on stretching between them); crows-feet (small, spiked, iron tetrahedra); and finally deliberate flooding or damming of rivers and the like. All of these required a lot of work and depended on what resources were to hand. This was labour-intensive, low-cost warfare.

Such obstacles were always intended to function within a larger system, to slow down an attacker and make him an easier target. Human resourcefulness and physical agility meant that movement could never be altogether prevented. Later lists of obstacles, such as that compiled by C.B. Brackenbury, also included ‘wire entanglements’:

the best of all obstacles is the wire entanglement, which can be used everywhere when wire is procurable. The higher it is and the more wire the better. In woods the trees and bushes will form support for the wire, and it has the advantage of remaining in coils about the feet of an enemy, no matter how long his artillery may have played on it. The only way to defeat wire entanglement is to lie down and crawl through it or cover it over.

The wire referred to here was probably not barbed wire, but the important point is that its use was dependent on availability: it was not taken for granted. Even in the South African War, soldiers didn’t have wire with them on the march.

By 1909, the role of wire had undergone a subtle change. In A Text Book on Field Fortification, G.J. Fiebeger claims that low wire entanglements (of non-barbed wire) were first used in the field in 1863, in the American Civil War; he also refers to the use of barbed wire for entanglements, and stresses that armies should be provided with wirecutters, as well as the traditional spades. He was already drawing on the lessons of Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in February 1904, and the war with Russia that followed. The vast areas involved in that conflict had included many different types of terrain; the land was poor and the climate harsh. Both the Russians and the Japanese had to ship their soldiers a long way. Modern weapons, on the one hand, and the relatively slow deployment of troops, on the other, meant that the war was characterised by long build-ups punctuated by rapid engagements. This, in turn, involved extensive fortification: labour-intensive but also high-cost. Most engagements took the form of an attack on a well-entrenched army. The trenches, most often lunette-shaped, were large – seven to eight feet deep and ten feet wide. Varying in length, they held anything from tens to hundreds of soldiers (approximately one man per yard of trench). They were not continuous, but together they formed a recognisable line of defence. A thick barbed-wire entanglement was put up about sixty yards in front of the forward trenches, which contained machine-gun emplacements. The guns, effective at a range of a few hundred yards, severely disrupted attacking forces even before they got near the wire; enemy soldiers stuck in front of the entanglement were hopelessly vulnerable. Attacks against a robust defence of this kind were considered to be very costly – the price paid in soldiers’ lives for cutting through entanglements was immense. (Barbed wire was even used inside trenches. When Japanese soldiers did manage to cross into a Russian trench, light ‘cages’ of barbed wire were thrown in by the retreating troops to slow down any further advance.) Slow down the men and speed up the rate of fire, and you have trench warfare. In the end, the war was won at sea, by the Japanese Navy.

The role of cavalry was for the first time severely reduced. This was ascribed at the time to the limitations of Japanese horses and to poor Russian organisation, though cavalry officers were clearly alarmed by developments that threatened to make them redundant. The cavalry was the embodiment of an army’s mobility, its ability rapidly to reduce distance and achieve face-to-face contact – re-creating, in the modern field, something like traditional combat. This was the context for a major tactical controversy of the time, about whether cavalry should be used for its shock value or its fire-power. At issue was whether or not they should be equipped with lances as well as rifles. Lord Dundonald, for instance, arguing for fire-power, remarked during the South African War that ‘the subdivision of lands into fields by wire fencing is rapidly increasing ... A few strands of wire, or a bit of difficult ground, will delay a mounted advance quite long enough for the rifle to do deadly work.’ The horse had no forward role in this new environment.

Dundonald was referring not only to wire laid for military purposes, but to agricultural barbed wire, too. Europe had more and more of this and, even before the First World War reached its static phase, cavalry operations had been severely reduced by the new terrain. Reviewing the German Army’s entry into Northern France, M. von Poseck concluded:

The advance of the cavalry was impeded by ever more intensive cultivation of the country and by the industrial works. Wire fences, drainage works, slag heaps, collieries, factory walls, railroad culverts, canals and other artificial constructions rendered the advance itself increasingly difficult and often prevented large mounted cavalry masses going into action.

Always optimistic for the future of the cavalry, the lesson he drew was that ‘it is very important ... that an accurate exploration of the terrain be carried out.’ In truth, the European landscape, once so closely linked with the fate of the horse, was now transformed and cavalry was obsolete.

In the South African War, barbed wire played a decisive strategic role by defining huge extents of land. In the Russo-Japanese War, it played a decisive tactical role, designating small areas that were acutely vulnerable to machine-gun fire. In the First World War, the strategic and tactical functions came together. The basic facts are well known. Following a brief series of rapid advances, the Germans were halted in September 1914 along a line of defence stretching obliquely across North-East France. The trenches dug on both sides resembled those developed in the Russo-Japanese War, except for an even greater use of barbed wire. In a British manual published during the war, the description has become crisper:

Front trenches ... must be protected by an efficient obstacle. Some form of barbed-wire entanglement is the most efficient obstacle and is that universally used ... A wire entanglement must be broad enough not to be easily bridged or quickly cut through, must be under the close fire of the defence, and near enough to be effectively watched by night. The near edge of the entanglement should be about 20 yards from the trench, and it should be at least 10 yards broad ... It may sometimes be useful to construct a second belt of wire beyond the first, with its outer edge some 40 or 50 yards from the trench ... With proper training, infantry should be able to make entanglements of this nature as close as 100 yards from the enemy on a dark night.

At that range they would of course be likely to reach the barbed wire laid by the other side.

The Germans relied on barbed wire even more heavily than the Allies, and J. Ellis reports that ‘their wire was hardly ever less than fifty feet deep, and in many places it was a hundred feet or more. In the Siegfried Line every trench had at least ten belts of wire in front of it.’ (A ‘belt’ was a single entanglement, consisting of many strands of wire.) In fact, the static, symmetrical nature of the war makes it, in a sense, a collaborative work – a collective effort by both sides to define space. This space was bounded by lines of trenches, stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss border – almost the whole distance could be walked without emerging at ground level. Millions of people lived inside these trenches, supported by huge supply networks. Most of the world economy, indeed, was reorganised in one way or another around these lines. Between them was no man’s land, an open space usually about five hundred yards wide, heavily covered by wire produced to military specifications: the barbs were closer together, and almost twice the length of those on agricultural wire. Its purpose was once again to be ‘vicious’.

The new barriers went beyond the obstacles described in earlier military manuals. Those had been designed for specific military engagements: here the wire was a permanent feature. The front line might move a few miles in this or that direction, but it no longer served any particular plan of attack or defence: it was the premise on which all conduct was based. Here indeed was a way of life that provided a perfect solution to the problem of preventing human movement. For those at the front, even the ones who survived in that lifeless terrain, time was marked by long intervals of boredom, punctuated by short periods of engagement. This was a new form of alienation, which was to become an important political force in postwar Europe.

It was the new technology of the tank that finally upset the symmetry on the Western Front, a development later represented by military historians as a return to a warfare of attack and mobility, following the defensive, static interlude of the First World War. This may be a valid interpretation in military historical terms, but not in terms of the history of human movement. Tanks and planes did not subvert the new environment defined by barbed wire and the machine-gun, they confirmed it. Just as animals had to be fenced in, if they were to survive in the new landscape of barbed-wire agriculture, so humans had also to be encased – in tanks and planes – to survive in the new era of barbed-wire warfare.

3

In 1896, during the war in Cuba, General Valeriano Weyler ordered the entire population of the island to gather inside the fortified towns occupied by Spanish forces. He was facing a guerrilla army and it was the only way he could cut them off from their supporters. Hundreds of thousands of people were forcibly relocated. The brutality of this policy did much to prepare US public opinion for the Spanish-American War of 1898, in which most of Spain’s imperial possessions were transferred to American hands. In the following year, a revolt broke out against US domination in the Philippines. American commanders responded with a policy of ‘reconcentration’, and in due course the insurgency was defeated, with perhaps as few as 11,000 civilian casualties in the concentration zones.

The tactics adopted in these zones were akin to those of a curfew, rather than actual detention. The limitations on people’s movements were backed up by a massive military presence – the soldiers had instructions to fire at individuals found in forbidden zones at forbidden times. The Americans felt no need to control individuals, as long as the population as a whole remained under control. Such concentration zones do not strictly belong to the history of barbed wire, but they presage later developments in the 20th century, which saw large groups of people, in conditions of war, forcibly moved and concentrated, simply because of their status as potential enemies.

As the South African War dragged on, for example, more and more Boer farms were destroyed and their inhabitants removed, usually by force, to areas under British control. These people were not moved to existing cities and villages, instead, a whole apparatus was created to provide the Boers with accommodation, medical care, education, protection and food. Unlike the Cuban and Philippine concentration zones, these were small, temporary settlements – whence the name ‘concentration camps’.

There were about fifty camps, each of which held a few thousand inmates at most. Almost all were women and children (the men were fighting). Deaths from disease reached catastrophic levels: something like 30,000 over the entire war. The camps were usually sited near existing settlements and consisted essentially of family tents, with a few larger tents (or sometimes more permanent structures) containing baths, latrines, kitchens, hospital beds etc. Control was simple: the inmates were totally dependent for all their provisions on the authorities, and because there were so many children, they were unlikely to put up resistance.

At first, the camps were left unfenced, to sustain the fiction that these were refugees enjoying British protection. Under the British garrison, a local police force was created, manned by the few male inmates; they were instructed to arrest individuals trying to enter or leave without authorisation, and to bring them to the camp superintendent, who could, at his discretion, send the ‘culprits’ to prison.

These arrangements could come under strain. Following his visit to Standerton in the Transvaal, Kendal Franks, a British inspector, recorded that Boers had raided the camp on 11 August 1901 and carried away 157 cattle. Reacting energetically to this challenge, Frank Winfield, the camp superintendent, ordered the inmates to erect a fence. This was the first recorded human settlement whose boundaries were defined by barbed wire. A couple of weeks later, Franks visited the camp at Volksrust and found that its 5000 inmates were hemmed in by a double perimeter fence of barbed wire, making a local police presence superfluous. On 7 September he noted, with great displeasure, the absence of barbed wire at the Heidelberg camp. A Committee of Ladies appointed by the British Government to inspect the camps actually recommended that fencing be made compulsory: ‘The presence of ... infectious diseases in either town or camp often makes a strict quarantine absolutely necessary. It is obvious also that a defined area is desirable from the point of view of cleanliness. It is much easier to ensure attention to sanitary regulations if the camp area is properly defined.’ (British propaganda made much of the inadequacy of medical and sanitary practices among the Boers: superior British methods were to be imposed, for the Boers’ own good.) What is striking is the ease with which the fences were erected: a medium-size settlement could be encircled in a few days. The materials were available, the investment in labour was not excessive. Barbed-wire camps were created simply because barbed wire was available.

When you are in the business of concentrating your enemies, there can be no halfway house: their movement has to be restricted. But the confinement of prisoners during a war is never easy. Take a case from the American Civil War. In the winter of 1864, in the face of military pressure, a number of Union prisoners had to be moved from Richmond, Virginia. They were hastily relocated in the village of Andersonville, where there was enough wood to fence them in, but not for their own needs – heating, cooking and so on. The construction even of such a rudimentary enclosure – no more than a pen – represented a waste of valuable military resources. About a tenth of the prisoners died within three months. The original prisons at Richmond had consisted of tobacco warehouses and a small island in the river – they already existed, in other words. When new structures had to be built, as in Andersonville, it was an indication of crisis.

Within fifty years, the solution was available almost everywhere. Here is Solzhenitsyn on the Russian prisoners captured in August 1914:

The column of footsloggers is marched into a compound with a temporary, almost a token fence of barbed wire stretched between temporary poles in the open field. The prisoners scatter to lie or sit on the bare ground, holding their heads, or stand or walk around, exhausted, bedraggled, bandaged, with bruises or open wounds. Some, for whatever reason, in their underwear, others without shoes, and all, of course, unfed. They stare at us through the barbed wire, forlorn and sad. A novel idea! To keep so many people in an open field, and make sure they don’t run away! Where else could you put them? A novel solution! The concentration camp! The fate of future decades! The harbinger of the 20th century!

Barbed wire had by now become standard in POW camps. From their temporary pen, the prisoners would rapidly be moved (almost certainly by train) to other, permanent camps. Some went to the usual warehouses, castles and churches, but ultimately, almost all prisoners would find themselves interned in what C.P. Dennett described in Prisoners of the Great War (1919) as ‘enclosures surrounded by barbed-wire fence about ten feet high; in some camps a single fence, in others an extra fence about fifty to seventy-five feet outside the first fence. To be caught in the space between the two fences meant death.’ Guardhouses were positioned in prominent positions around the periphery, affording perfect visibility, not so much of the camp itself as of the forbidden boundary line. The semi-transparent character of the barbed-wire perimeter made it ideal for this purpose.

A pattern had emerged: trenches and barbed wire, in the Russo-Japanese War and since; blockhouses and barbed wire, in the South African War; guardhouses and barbed wire in World War One. The difference between trenches, blockhouses and guardhouses has to do with a growing asymmetry in the disposition of hostile forces. Faced by a well-prepared enemy, the infantry soldier had to dig trenches; faced by the lightly-armed Boers, it was important to be able to see one’s enemy, whence the prefabricated, relatively light forts built by the British. Finally, in the management of unarmed prisoners, visibility was paramount: the Great War marks the advent of the guardhouse – no fortification is required, even though the guards in a POW camp are at war with their inmates. These are not self-policing civilians.

During the Great War there were about 30,000 residents holding German citizenship in Britain. They could not be repatriated and the obvious solution was to intern them. Some were placed in the usual assortment of disused structures – a deserted skating-rink in Southampton, a former factory in Lancaster – but most were put behind barbed wire in two camps on the Isle of Man. The concentration camp had become a useful resource to control enemy populations, civilian or otherwise.

In a civil war the definition of an enemy may have nothing to do with national identity. ‘Anyone who dares to agitate against the Soviet will be arrested immediately and confined in a concentration camp,’ the Vecheka Proclamation of 31 August 1918 stated. By 1922, 24,750 individuals were being detained in the USSR in 56 camps. After the fighting ended, the camps were transformed, not dismantled. In the more settled conditions of the early 1920s, greater emphasis was put on the use of existing structures. The Solovetzsky islands, in the White Sea, with their solid, monastic houses, were for a while the main locus of confinement in Russia. The number of prisoners there rose steadily from 3000 in 1923 to 50,000 in 1930.

Towards the end of the 1920s, Russia was thrown back onto a war footing. The enemies were ‘Kulaks’, ‘saboteurs’ etc. In 1933, there were 2.5 million inmates of the gulag, and the number had doubled by the time Stalin died in 1953. After that, the camps were sharply scaled back, but they remained part of the Soviet landscape. No one knows how many of them there were. The gulag’s perimeter amounted, in total, to tens of thousands of miles – a figure comparable to the length of railroads and barbed-wire fences in the 19th-century American West. The lay-out of the camps is typical: layers of barbed-wire fences, punctuated by guardhouses.

If barbed wire now seems so familiar, this is because of the memorial power of the Holocaust. The control of space was essential to Nazi ideology and practice – German devotion to the land was opposed to the landlessness of the Jews. Like the Bolsheviks’ class enemy, the Jews were an enemy without precise borders, whose defeat required their preliminary determination in space. The German quest for Lebensraum and the simultaneous quest to make this space free from Jews – Judenrein – are aspects of the same process. The Nazi leadership, it is worth bearing in mind, belonged to the generation of the trenches.

The history of German concentration camps begins in 1933, though they were at first a general political instrument, comparable to those set up by the Bolsheviks. The movement of Jews was initially restricted by legal means, culminating in the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which barred them from certain kinds of economic activity and from contact with non-Jews. There were also more radical definitions of Jewishness – special marks on passports, for instance, or quasi-branding with a yellow star. Extreme ideas for relocation were floated, including the resettlement of the entire Jewish population in some clearly defined area, such as the island of Madagascar.

In the event, the chosen course was much more extreme. After the overrunning of Poland, ghettoes were set up, comparable to the concentration zones of Cuba and the Philippines, but now intended exclusively for a particular human group, and defined on the ground, of course, by barbed wire. By 1941 Jews were being systematically murdered in occupied areas of the Soviet Union and at the end of that year, the Final Solution moved into its most distinctive phase, that of the death camps. This was the moment at which Nazi Germany achieved total control over the space it had requisitioned: the whole of Occupied Europe was now connected, by rail, to a few centres – to the camps.

Barbed wire may seem like a trivial detail in a context of this magnitude. In fact, however, it was the central element in the architecture of the death camps. ‘We’re separated from each other by barbed wire,’ Wolfgang Sofsky quotes a survivor as saying in The Order of Terror. ‘The Germans evidently have a very special affection for barbed wire. Wherever you go, barbed wire. But you gotta give credit where credit’s due: the quality’s good, stainless steel. Densely covered with long barbs. Barbed wire horizontally, barbed wire vertically.’ It was used not only on the perimeter but inside it, too, to define particular spaces for particular purposes. A camp was rather like a painting by Mondrian, a rectangle divided and subdivided into smaller rectangles of varying sizes, always staked out by copious deployments of barbed wire. At the perimeter was the obligatory, several-layered fence. Wire alone, however, was not enough to ensure absolute control (and its semi-transparent nature became a handicap now that it was desirable to hide what was inside the fence). Concrete walls were often erected in addition. But the prisoners felt themselves to be surrounded above all by wire, for two reasons. First, the wire was electrified, making it a doubly potent symbol of the violence surrounding them; second, in an extension of the practice in POW camps, if you went within a certain distance of the barbed wire you would immediately be shot at. In the camps, in short, the definition of space was its own justification. The inmates were forever being ordered to march or to stand still; or were locked inside high blocks, all of which were identical (so that motion, when not controlled, was divested of meaning). Deprived of any private space, they were allowed just enough room to exist. Everything was calculated to annihilate the spatial presence of the Jews, even before their actual murder.

The history of barbed wire did not end with the death camps. It has many contemporary uses and the industry remains vibrant. The literature that has been devoted to it takes two rather different forms. One is concerned exclusively with the human context and makes few references to the technology. Barbed wire here becomes a pure symbol of repression: Amnesty International’s candle surrounded by a strand of wire is perhaps its best-known instance. Countless memoirs by victims of repression write of their experiences ‘behind barbed wire’, but tend to ignore the mechanics of that repression.

The other kind of literature discusses, often in technical detail, the use of barbed wire to control animals, especially in the American West. In this context, barbed wire becomes a historical character in its own right – a hero whose strength and ingenuity are to be admired. Some of the contributors to this literature actually collect barbed wire. For them it is a cherished piece of Americana, an image of the West itself. They may make reference occasionally to its use in war, but only in its defensive role.

These divergent perspectives tend to obscure the fact that the extension of the use of barbed wire from the control of animal to the control of human movement was not a perverse but a natural development of its capacities. At the basic level of pain – when barbs meet flesh – animals and humans do not differ very much. A species which enslaves another species puts itself at risk.

It is not as if the erection of so much barbed wire in the American West led in any direct way to trench warfare, which led in turn to concentration camps. There are, nonetheless, marked continuities and similarities between the repression of animals and that of human beings. Humans and animals can never be said to ‘collaborate’ in a capitalist economy. The relations between them closely resemble those between warring groups, or, indeed, between oppressors and the oppressed. But because it is much easier to oppress animals, they can serve as a testing ground for the oppression of other human beings. It may be true that the Nazis would have set up concentration camps regardless of Henry Rose’s experiments with his cow, but it is true also that Auschwitz could never have been surrounded by Osage orange fences. A particular technology would have been needed and it’s not clear that the technology of barbed wire would have become available had it not been for the need experienced in the American West.

The materials required to make barbed wire existed a decade before it was invented, at the time of the American Civil War, which spawned all kinds of military inventions, from the machine-gun to the submarine. Furthermore, with the unprecedented numbers of soldiers involved, this war also generated new kinds of pressure on the control of POWs, culminating in extreme cases such as the open-field stockade prison of Andersonville. Indeed, wire was occasionally used – locally and tactically – as an obstacle in the field. Yet that use, based on local availability, differed fundamentally from the subsequent use of wire with barbs on. Barbed wire does not become barbed wire until thousands of miles of it have been produced. A small length is no more than a meaningless piece of ironwork, no more effective than a thornbush. But arrange mile after mile of it in lines and you turn it into a new weapon of control.

Barbed wire entered human history – for all practical purposes, in the South African War – once its cost had been pushed right down by two decades of agricultural development. Before it could adopt its new role, it had first to undergo what might be thought of as a period of capital formation, when miles of it were produced and stockpiled. Only then could it become a key element in the modern texture of power, or of misery. And the misery which humans inflict on animals may ultimately be inseparable from the misery which they inflict on themselves.