From: Over the top, by and American Soldier who went, by Arthur Guy Empey.
“Wiring Party. Another social affair for which Tommy receives invitations. It consists of going “over the top ” at night and stretching barbed wire between stakes. A German machine gun generally takes the place of an orchestra.”
British wiring party near Arras By no means a task for the faint of heart, wiring duties were correctly regarded as being fraught with danger.
When assigned as a member of a wiring party – usually operating under the direction of more experienced NCOs – men would creep into No Man’s Land under cover of darkness, a necessary precaution given the essentially unprotected nature of their activities.
Once there the wiring party would, as occasion demanded, insert new wiring posts (approximately 6 feet in height) ahead of the front trench, either by hammering the post with a muffled mallet, or else by winding the post in the manner of a screw (the earlier method being more common during the early stages of trench warfare).
Once the posts were in place reels of barbed wire – concertina wire – would be affixed to the post, unwound and attached to a second post (and often doubled back again to provide an additional layer of protection).
The task was one which obviously needed to be undertaken in strict secrecy and silence. Men assigned to wiring duties lived in constant fear of enemy flares, sent up to illuminate an area of the battlefield as if by daylight. Men caught in No Man’s Land by such flares would either freeze until the light of the flare died, or else (more often) throw themselves instantly to the ground. It was not uncommon for enemy machine gun fire to accompany the sending up of flares as a precautionary measure.
Barbed wire, which could and often was laid to a formidable depth, proved difficult to destroy, although high explosive artillery was often launched so as to clear the enemy lines of wire; all too often however the wire remained uncut, as was disastrously the case for advancing British forces on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
Wire would generally be laid at sufficient distance from the front line trench to prevent the possibility of enemy infantry lobbing grenades into the trench and fleeing. Furthermore wire would commonly be laid in such a configuration as to draw advancing enemy troops into ideal range for enfilading machine gun fire.
Where the distance between the enemy front lines was narrow – often the case on the trenches of the Western Front – it was not unusual for wiring parties of one side to encounter men from the opposing line engaged in the same task.
In such circumstances hand-to-hand fighting would often ensure (the use of pistols often instantly drawing deadly machine gun fire from both sides), or else one side would instantly flee back to their line in order to open up fire on the opposing wiring party.
Both sides did this. Groups of soldiers late at night would slip as quietly as possible out of their trenches and go in front of them to add to existing wire or create new wire obstacles. This was barbed wire, such as is used in pasture fencing. Some soldiers carried heavy spools of wire, others carried stakes to be driven into the ground and upon which the wire would be strung. The spools of wire would have a stick through the middle so it would spin and the wire could be unspooled and stretched between the stakes. Somebody had to have wire cutters for when it was necessary to cut the wire. They might have metal stakes or wooden ones, and they might wrap the wire around the stakes or they might have to tack it to the wooden stakes, which would make noise. Any noise could be deadly. Enemy soldiers would be on watch all night. Periodically they would fire flares into the air, from flare pistols, to light up the area. These flares had little parachutes and burned brightly as they drifted down. If the wiring party heard the pop of the flare pistol they would instantly throw themselves to the ground, and lie motionless until the flare burned out. If they were unable to get on the ground before the flare lit up, they had to freeze and remain absolutely still until the flare burned out, and hope and pray the enemy did not see them. If they were seen the enemy would open up with machine guns, and they had to try to get back in their trenches before being killed, unless there was a shell crater handy to jump into. If the enemy heard noises he might open up with the machine guns in the direction of the noise without waiting for a flare to go up. In some places along the front the trenches were as much as 800 yards apart, but mostly they were much closer, and in some places very close. The soldiers hated wiring parties, as it was an extra way to get killed, and very dangerous. Handling the wire in the dark was not easy and it would rip the flesh of your hands if you weren’t careful.