As the first large land battles of The “Great War” (World War I) took shape in 1914 on the recently-invaded fields of Flanders, and the armies of the “Allies” prepared to go up against those of Germany and Austria-Hungary – soon to be known as “The Central Powers” – the military experts of the day envisioned masses of mounted cavalry in the thousands, with banners flying and lances deployed easily dislodging the invaders huddling in their earthen trenches. The British, French and Belgian field marshals had failed to give proper thought in their grand-planning to the two weapons which were poised to change the very history of warfare. The machine guns hidden behind concrete bunkers were bad enough, but the most tradition-shattering surprise came in the form of coiled rolls of barbed wire which stopped the assaulting troops cold, cost millions of lives, and rendered mounted cavalry forever obsolete.
Ironically the thousands of tons of barbed wire being unloaded daily behind the German lines sprang from an American invention which dated back to the day in 1873 when an Illinois farm wife challenged her husband, Joseph F. Glidden, to find a way to keep his livestock out of her garden. In order to make Lucinda Glidden happy, Joseph borrowed some of her hairpins, and began weaving them between two twisting wires. Certain he was onto something, he modified a hand-operated coffee grinder into a moving spool onto which two strands of wire were rotated while sharp bits of metal were inserted with each revolution. In 1874, Glidden was awarded a patent on his “barbed wire” invention, setting off a manufacturing enterprise which would spawn 570 competitors, and make Joseph Glidden a wealthy man.
Long before barbed wire found its way onto the battlefields of Europe, its appearance in America had changed the way the herds of cattle roaming the “open range” of the west would fit in with the changing landscape and the very use and ownership of land. To the Native American way of thinking fencing was anathema as was private ownership and control of the vast prairies and grazing lands. The very concept of fenced boundaries helped bring about the enmity and conflict that followed. It can also be argued that barbed wire, (and later the coming of the railroad), brought the age of the cowboy to an end, both consequences far beyond any outcome the humble inventor could have foreseen.
Framed in a “shadow box” just above my writing desk is a short length of rusted barbed wire, retrieved from one of the world’s most infamous boundaries – the “demilitarized zone” (DMZ) separating Communist North and free South Korea. It was presented to me by the appreciative Republic of Korea. I look at it every day, and often think back to a time when my life and the lives of my buddies depended on the coils of “concertina” wire surrounding the tiny piece of battle-scarred soil our tiny unit of Americans occupied. Thank you, Joseph Glidden!