The first strands of barbed wire went up almost as soon as the Western Front began to take shape. Useful as a means for holding up infantry assault and preventing infiltration, the battlefields of 1915 quickly filled with the stuff. In some places it is like a wild, invasive weed, choking the no man’s land between the front lines and proliferating in the defenses behind them. Great fields of wire form a matted and tangled and cruel mess, here and there punctuated by high explosives and shrapnel as well as the actions of enemy infantry, a verdant and ever-changing thorn bush growing in a habitat formed by military deadlock.
In that battlespace born of mutual siege, a new tactical environment has arrived. Wiring parties make noise with hammers and mallets, so signs of activity soon began to draw harassing fire from enemy snipers and artillery. Seeking silence, both sides have developed screw pickets which do not require loud banging to set up. Spools from factories in the United States or the Ruhr arrive all the time, and unit supply stations can manufacture it themselves as well because the machinery is quite portable. Men are asked to festoon the deadly waste zone with these fresh garlands, to risk life and limb crawling through the open in order to prune them, to clear away and bury their rotting fruits, or to kill other men doing the same.
Schemes to sneak close and surprise the enemy with a few casualties, or conduct a trench raid to glean information, lead to both sides creating paths through their own wire and the enemy’s, cutting their way through as close as they dare while sentries listen for the slightest noise of activity. Largely a nocturnal specialization, the wiring party has become a constant activity as each side seeks to protect itself while keeping the enemy at grips.
Nowhere near so murderous as great battles like the bloodbath still unfolding at Verdun, the daily toll of ‘routine’ operations makes the quietest day in the British zone deadly for far too many. We may ask why men would agree to such a dangerous detail; one answer is that life in the trenches is incredibly monotonous, with boredom of routine broken occasionally by the ever-present danger of death from sudden indirect fire. Given the circumstances, soldiers make a rational decision to risk these duties because it is better than sitting still while unseen enemies contrive your murder.
Of course, many of them are just following orders, but some soldiers still pursue the dangerous work from a sense of duty. One of these is Sergeant Lou Phillips, a former international rugby player and golf talent who volunteered to serve despite his nagging knee injury. Enlisting in a service battalion with the Royal Fusiliers as part of the Public Schools and University Men’s Force, a volunteer drive among the British nation’s best and brightest, he was deployed to the Western Front less than five months ago. Phillips was once a powerful tackler and runner, and twice Welsh Amateur champion on the greens; this is probably why he was offered a chance to take a commission as an officer, an opportunity he declined. A very good noncommissioned officer, Phillips is universally trusted and esteemed by the men who follow him into no man’s land.
But that relationship ends today in the Cuinchy sector, a portion of the British line just south of Givenchy in the zone where the Indian Expeditionary Corps once fought and bled. While out on a ‘routine’ wiring party tonight, a bullet zips out of the darkness and strikes Phillips in the chest, killing him immediately.
He is just one of dozens of international rugby players to die in the Great War, which has shut down sporting leagues altogether in the United Kingdom. Having gone to war with habits of teamwork developed on the athletic pitch, the British Army exercises with sporting games in the safety of the rear to stay strong, pass the time, and maintain those habits for every soldier’s next turn in the front lines. The very language of the British Army is replete with sporting terms, as they provide a common frame of reference across the class lines which separate officer from enlisted man. Phillips once embodied that relationship, but now his corpse is evacuated to the rear for burial, another victim of the war’s ‘quiet’ days and the ‘routines’ of total war.