Men Among Its Brambles

The Tangled Wire of the Western Front, Northeastern France.

The CEF, Barbed Wire and the Victoria Cross

The Great War poet, soldier and recipient of the Military Cross, Wilfred Owen wrote, “Watching we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire”. The phrase reminds me that during the war’s silence, eerie unto itself, the men within the trenches were conscious of every sound, every footstep, every movement of the earth as soldiers crawled or patrolled through no man’s land. A star shell rises in the sky and these men of this cratered earth stand still till the flare’s energy turns to dark again. The eyes, from the opposing trench, conscious of movement are betrayed by the lack of motion before them and so they return to their thoughts while the wind gusts.

These barriers of entanglements seek to capture soldiers in the field, tug at them, causing their heart to pound and echo within their body. Desperation sets in, waiting to be unloosed, freed before the sound of the bolt drives another round towards the helpless soul. For every action there is a reaction and yet again another telegram will find its way home.

For three soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force their citations specifically record their acts among the wire. Of the three, Piper James Cleland Richardson’s Victoria Cross was awarded posthumously.

James Cleland Richardson (16th Battalion C.E.F. “The Canadian Scottish”)
Regina Trench, Somme, France, October 8, 1916

“For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty, when prior to the attack, he obtained permission from his Commanding Officer to play his company ‘over the top’.

As the Company approached the objective, it was held up by very strong wire and came under intense fire, which caused heavy casualties and demoralized the formation for the moment. Realizing the situation, Piper Richardson strode up and down outside the wire, playing his pipes with the greatest coolness. The effect was instantaneous. Inspired by his splendid example, the company rushed the wire with such fury and determination that the obstacle was overcome and the position carried.

Later, after participating in bombing operations, he was detailed to take back a wounded comrade and prisoners.

After proceeding about 200 yards Piper Richardson remembered that he had left his pipes behind. Although strongly urged not to do so, he insisted on returning to recover his pipes. He has never been seen since, and death has been presumed accordingly owing to lapse of time”.

Frederick Maurice Watson Harvey (Lord Strathcona’s Horse)
In front of the French village of Guyencourt, March 27, 1917

“For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. During an attack by his regiment on a village a party of the enemy ran forward to a wired trench just in front of the village and opened rapid fire and machine-gun fire at a very close range, causing heavy casualties in the leading troop.

At this critical moment, when the enemy showed no intention whatever of retiring and fire was still intense, Lieut. Harvey, who was in command of the leading troop, ran forward well ahead of his men and dashed at the trench, still fully manned, jumped the wire, shot the machine gunner and captured the gun.

His most courageous act undoubtedly had a decisive effect on the success of the operation.”

Milton Fowler Gregg (Royal Canadian Regiment)
Near Cambrai, September 27 to October 1, 1918

“For most conspicuous bravery and initiative during the operations near Cambrai 27th September to 1st October, 1918.

On 28th September, when the advance of the brigade was held up by fire from both flanks and by thick uncut wire, he crawled forward alone and explored the wire until he found a small gap, through which he subsequently led his men, and forced an entry into the enemy trench. The enemy counter-attacked in force, and through lack of bombs, the situation became critical. Although wounded, Lt. Gregg returned alone under terrific fire and collected a further supply. Then rejoining his party, which by this time was much reduced in numbers, and, in spite of a second wound, he reorganized his men and led them with the greatest determination against the enemy trenches, which he finally cleared.

He personally killed or wounded 11 of the enemy and took 25 prisoners, in addition to 12 machine-guns captured the trench. Remaining with his company in spite of wounds, he again on the 3oth September led his men in attack until severely wounded. The outstanding valour of this officer saved many casualties and enabled the advance to continue.”

German Barbed Wire at the Imperial War Museum, London.

These men at the wire are but a few of the many whose awards for valour record their actions in the presence of the barb, those spikes that track along its length that seeks to capture the cloth and entrap the man. Wilfred Owen also wrote “Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles”, reminding us that for every act of valour there were countless acts of valour that went unrecognized and still many more whose sacrifice was claimed among the spikey chaos.

Wilfred Owen was awarded the Military Cross for his actions on October 1/2, 1918 at the French village of Joncourt. On November 4, 1918 Owen was killed when attempting to cross the Sambre-Oise Canal. He is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery. With the war’s end on November 11, 1918, the news spread quickly and while towns and their people celebrated, the notice of Wilfred Owen’s death was delivered to his parents as the church bells rang.

The two lines of prose by Owen are from his poem Exposure.

 Exposure by Wilfred Owen

About The Author

Paul has worked with the Paradigm Motion Picture Company since 2009 as producer, historian and research specialist. Paul first met Casey and Ian WIlliams of Paradigm in April 2007 at Ieper (Ypres), Belgium when ceremonies were being held for the re-dedication of the Vimy Memorial, France. Paul's sensitivity to film was developed at an early age seeing his first films at RCAF Zweibrucken, Germany and Sardinia. Paul returned to Canada in 1967 and was captivated by David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Bridge on the River Kwai". Over time Paul became increasingly interested in storytelling, content development, character, direction, cinematography, narration and soundtracks. At the University of Victoria, Paul studied and compared Japanese and Australian film and became interested in Australian film maker Peter Weir and his film "Gallipoli" (1981). Paul was inspired when he learned Weir visited the beaches, ridges and ravines of the peninsula. "Gallipoli", the film, led Paul on many journeys to sites of conflict in England, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Malta, Hawaii, Gallipoli, North Macedonia and Salonika. When Paul first watched documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, "The Civil War", Paul understood how his own experience and insight could be effective and perhaps influential in film-making. Combining his knowledge of Museums and Archives, exhibitions and idea strategies with his film interests was a natural progression. Paul thinks like a film-maker. His passion for history and storytelling brings to Paradigm an eye (and ear) to the keen and sensitive interests of; content development, the understanding of successful and relational use of collections, imagery and voice. Like Paul's favorite actor, Peter O'Toole, Paul believes in the adage “To deepen not broaden.” While on this path Paul always remembers his grandmother whose father did not return from the Great War and how his loss shaped her life and how her experience continues to guide him.


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