World War 1 History: The Dutch-Belgian Wire of Death
High Voltage Border
The Neutral Netherlands
At the start of World War One, the Netherlands declared themselves a neutral nation and the Germans honored that status. Although their original plan had been to invade France through Belgium and the Netherlands, the Germans had made the decision not to violate Dutch neutrality so they would have one less country to fight. This may have been a mistake since the obstinate Belgians bottled up the German armies longer than anyone thought they would (if at all), throwing the Germans' carefully crafted timetable off. Had the Germans gone through the southern tip of the Netherlands as well, their plan to envelop the French armies and sweep south to Paris might have succeeded.
The Porous Dutch-Belgian Border
In any case, the Germans captured most of Belgium and found themselves having to guard the convoluted border between Belgium and the Netherlands against spies and smugglers slipping back and forth as well as Belgian soldiers escaping to the Netherlands where they could make their way to England and get to France to fight again. This tied down a lot of men needed elsewhere.
Down by the Swiss border, an experimental electric fence, strong enough to kill any person or animal that touched it, had been constructed in early 1915 to isolate thirteen Alsatian villages from Switzerland. It was decided to use a similar fence on a much larger scale to seal off the Belgian-Dutch border. Work began in April 1915 and, using hired local workers, Landsturm troops (third-class infantry) and Russian POWs, the fence was completed in August 1915.
Electrocution or Shoot to Kill
It stretched almost 200 miles from Vaals, near the German border, to the Schelde River, north of Antwerp (see map below), more or less following the border, completely on Belgian soil. The main fence was six to ten feet high with five to ten copper wires carrying 2,000 to 6,000 volts, more than enough to kill anyone touching one of the live wires. A series of huts housed the generators and the current could be cut off in sections for maintenance or to retrieve dead bodies. Usually, two outer barbed wire fences, one on either side, would stop stray animals or humans from coming in contact with the electrified fence, though there were sections with only the live fence and nothing to keep people from brushing against it. At regular intervals, guard posts were built and the perimeter was regularly patrolled. The German soldiers were given orders to shoot to kill and some escapees were shot even though they had made it to Dutch territory.
Death Along the Border
As Many as 3,000 Dead
It was built in straight lines, sometimes cutting towns in two, bissecting farms and gardens, crossing canals, even crossing over the tops of houses. As it was being built, locals would come to marvel at it, many not believing that the electricity running through it could actually kill. Danger signs were posted, but only when reports started coming in of people and animals actually dying on the fence, did the public understand the danger. It became known as the “border of death”, the “devil's wire” or the “wire of death”. Estimates of 2,000 to 3,000 electrocution deaths have been attributed to the wire of death.
High Voltage Border
Slowed but not Stopped
While it deterred many from crossing, as well as large groups of Belgian males of military age, it was not impenetrable. Determined spies and smugglers developed methods of crossing the electric barrier. Some used rubber-lined barrels and window panes, which they would (carefully) insert between the wires and crawl through; some dug under the wires or short-circuited them, some used wooden ladders. Sometimes, contraband or documents could just be thrown over to the other side. The Germans countered by burying live wires and raising the height of the fence and installing searchlights. They also instituted a registration plan, whereby Belgian males aged 17 to 55 were required to register and appear monthly to monitor how many were still crossing into the Netherlands. The fence was costly to erect and maintain but it certainly slowed traffic between the Dutch-Belgian frontier.
The hated fence was torn down immediately after the war. Many farmers used the posts and wire (non-electrified, of course) for their own fields. Before the war, large areas of the southern Netherlands had been French-speaking and were culturally and commercially attached to Belgian towns like Liege and Vise. After four years of separation by the fence and going to the Dutch city of Maestricht, the old customs never returned. Today, they don't even speak French.
Electric Fence Followed the Border Between Vaals (A) and the Schelde River (B)
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© 2012 David Hunt