I was a World War 1 wire cutter: What do you think you were?

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gin and soldier

I’ve always been fascinated by trench warfare in World War 1.

In fact, I find trench warfare more interesting than WW2 even though Nazis were pretty interesting and Hitler fought in WW1 and knew about trenches because he got gassed in one.

And I certainly find WW1 more interesting than wars in the Middle East and Africa which don’t feature trenches at all but a lot of advanced weaponry called drones.

I like WW1 so much that I re-read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, a German soldier who wrote about his trench warfare experience.

I studied World War 1 all through school and watched documentaries with soldiers climbing out of trenches to run in jerky motion across the screen. (The jerky movement was due to the cameraman drinking too many gin and tonics because he had to film in an open field with people shooting at him and not in the Hollywood studio he’d been expecting.)

Considering that I’ve read a lot and watched a lot of documentaries about WW1, I still get excited when I discover something new about trench warfare. I picked up a copy of Command on the Western Front: The Military Career of Sir Henry Rawlinson 1914-1918 by Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson at the local library the other day. The book caught my eye because it talks an awful lot about the barbed wire which stretched across no man’s land on the Somme. 

The difference between this book and eyewitness accounts like those of Erich Maria Remarque is that it explains why cutting and dismantling barbed wire was crucial in trench warfare and could mean the difference between winning or losing a battle.

I’m the first to admit that cutting wire on the Western Front may not sound like the most exciting aspect of World War 1 but it really was important.

The wire had to be cut so that enemy trenches could be bombarded with artillery before men were sent over the top to run in jerky fashion past the drunken camera man to bayonet and shoot whatever they found before running back to their own trenches.

Cutting the wire was a responsible job particularly since soldiers got stuck in barbed wire if it wasn’t cut properly. Naturally this led to wondering about the thought processes of the soldier(s) responsible for wire cutting on the Somme and I imagined it would be like this:

“Where did I put those bolt cutters? Are these the best bolt cutters for this wire? How much wire can I cut before the Germans start shooting at me? Will I get time to tell the officer-in- charge that I’ve cut several feet of wire before they start bombarding the enemy trenches? Will I get in trouble if I don’t cut all that much wire? Will my soldier friends have enough space to get through the wire if I run out of time? Can I have one of those gin and tonics before you start filming me? How much does a cameraman earn anyway?

Until I read this book I never understood why soldiers ran into barbed wire which they clearly knew was there because it was everywhere. But now I know that one of the soldiers responsible for wire cutting may have neglected the job because he was drinking gin and tonics with the cameraman.

Obviously things go awry when you don’t do the job properly. Also, what happened if the bolt cutters didn’t work or the artillery bombardment was too early or too late or not at all?

I explained all this to my teenage son when he inquired as to what I was reading and said that if there was such a thing as reincarnation then I was a wire cutter on the Western Front. My son doubted whether I’d been a soldier and said reincarnation didn’t work like that and if it did I’d probably have been a donkey.

I said that if I was a donkey in a previous life it would have been in Ancient Egypt because I once rode a donkey to the Valley of the Kings and I felt so sorry for it that I got off and walked. The guide (the same one with the brother who gave me the dodgy parcel) shrieked at me to ride the donkey but I said that it was hard enough for it to climb up hills with falling rubble, particularly when I was sitting on it. I felt quite an affinity for the donkey, particularly as I’d been a solider in WW1 so I know what it is like to have to climb hills with people barking orders and rubble falling around me.

Anyway, my son said it was ridiculous he had a mother who thinks she is a reincarnated wire cutter from WW1 and couldn’t I just be normal like all the other mums and please go make some dinner.

But I said that he didn’t appreciate the fact that if he had lived  a hundred years ago then it would have been really important to know about barbed wire and bolt cutting and it wasn’t something they taught at school. He said he was not a reincarnated soldier from WW1 and barbed wire didn’t interest him and that he would go and make his own dinner. Besides, if he had to pick an interesting military conflict then the Opium War between China and England was a lot more interesting than trenches in WW1.

And that’s when the idea struck me for a new television series. What attracts people to certain eras in history and does it have something to do with genetic memory?

Genetic memory is a theory about feelings and ideas inherited from our ancestors as part of the collective unconscious (at least that’s what Carl Jung thought).

There’s a program called Who Do You Think You Are? that focuses upon a celebrity and researches their family history. They then take the celebrity to the places and events that affected their ancestors and film their reaction.

But my idea is for an alternative program called What Do You Think You Were? It would take celebrities (because they never use non-celebrities) to places and events in history that interest them and see if they can remember anything.

My son said a show like that wouldn’t work because genetic memory wasn’t all that specific. So I told him to stop being critical and what would a drug addict from the Opium Wars know anyway? Besides, it was fun on the Somme when your best friend was the cameraman with a constant supply of gin and tonic.

So think about it. What era resonates with you?

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About the author

Sue Bell is an entertainment writer and author of Backpacked: A mostly true story, Beat Street and When Dreamworks came to Stanley.