Twenty questions about the wire of death

Dutch text: Herman Janssen
Translation: Michel De Laet

1. What was the wire of death?

The wire of death was an electric barrier on the border of Belgium and The Netherlands during the First World War. It was the borderline between war and peace. It was far more than being a meaningless improvisation or experimentation. As a weapon it was founded on scientific military research and on technical knowhow.

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2. Where was the wire of death constructed?

The wire of death reached from the Belgian coastline in Knokke (Zwin) until the suburbs of the German city of Aachen. On Belgian soil it was constructed along the borderline, following the border loosely. The total distance between Knokke and Vaals (the tripoint of Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany) was almost 450 kilometres long. To shorten this, large straits of Belgian soil were left behind the wire of death. This area was often erroneously referred to as no man’s land, in fact it was cut off from Belgian territory but remained occupied by the Germans if it was inhabited. The inhabitants were enclosed by the wire of death on one side and the barbed wire fence along the Dutch borderline on the other side. This was the case in all three ‘hunches’ in the North of Antwerp (from West to East: Essen, Nieuwmoer and Wildert; Meer, Meerle, Meersel-Dreef and a part of Minderhout; Poppel, Weelde and Ravels). Surveillance of the 54 kilometre-long borderline in Baarle-Nassau could thus be reduced to 15,5 kilometres. 

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3. When was the wire of death constructed?

Construction started in April-May of 1915. The barrier was not built from East to West or vice verse. Separate parts of fencing were built at various places. By June and July 1915 some strips had already been completed (between Minderhout and Arendonk, in the vicinity of Maldegem, Boekhoute, Prosperpolder and Neerpelt). Other parts followed in August 1915 or still later (in Geistingen and Ophoven it would last till the middle of 1916). In the beginning of July 1915 the first posts and construction material were delivered in Zondereigen (Baarle-Hertog). The wire was electrified on the 24th of July 1915.

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4. Who constructed the wire of death?

It was commanded by the German occupation army. The actual route was decided on, trees were removed. Then German military engineers and voluntary Belgian labourers were sent in. Some of these volunteers had no experience whatever with manual labour. They were poorly equipped for the job, wearing fine shoes and a bad coat over their civilian clothes. By paytime at the end of the first working day, the German officer was left with half of the wages as most volunteers had fled to The Netherlands.

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5. What did the wire of death look like?

Large stakes were driven in the soil on the route that was layed out. The pine stakes were equipped with porcelain insulators to hold the wires. The fence usually contained five or six wires, spaced evenly at 30 centimetres, fixed at the Belgian side of the stake. Higher up two more wires were placed to supply the electricity (the ‘Speiseleitung’, as the Germans called this feeder wire). Smooth wire of three to five millimetres diametre was used, but supplies were insufficient so often barbed wire was used instead. One and a half up to three metres along either side of the fence another barbed wire fence was placed. These were lower, not electrified, serving as a protection for people and animals. 

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6. Why was this barrier constructed?

The German army could not seal the borderline completely. Many people succeeded in crossing the kilometre-long borders: amongst them were volunteers for the Belgian army, spies, clandestine mail-deliverers, resistance fighters, smugglers and refugees. The wire of death would close the borderline hermetically. One should know that from the start of the war on, the occupating Germans had tried to close the borders with The Netherlands by placing barriers on the main roads and having soldiers patrolling. All this demanded the deployment of a considerable number of soldiers. The wire of death fence would reduce this number drastically.

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7. Why was there no Dutch protest?

The Netherlands were officially neutral, as such the Dutch had to close and guard their borders. The German wire of death fence made this considerably easier.

8. What were the consequences of the construction?

Placing the wire of death made it impossible to enter The Netherlands. Border traffic was reduced. For inhabitants of the border region this was a painful ordeal as their friends and relatives very often lived in both countries. All traffic to The Netherlands was forbidden or required a strict German control. Whether one could visit a relative or a friend on the other side of the border, depended on the arbitrary decision of the local commander who might – or might not – grant a written (and paid for) permit to leave the country for just a few hours or days. Belgians had to leave the country through a specific gate and had to enter again through the same gate, subject to scrutinous control and registration. If one failed to return in time from a visit to e.g. a sick relative, one simply risked having family members imprisoned or you were forced to pay a heavy fine.

9. What implications did the wire of death have for civilians?

Farmers often had land or meadows on the other side of the wire fence, sometimes only a few hundreds of metres from their farm. The construction of the wire fence forced them to make a detour of sometimes a few kilometres to pass the gate that allowed them to enter their own land. Sometimes they did not even get the permission to do so. Labourers who worked in The Netherlands did not get a permit to cross the border on a daily basis. They were made to choose between staying in Belgium without an income, or working and also residing in The Netherlands. Then they were allowed to return to their native country once or twice a month. Children could no longer attend their school if that happened to be on the other side of the fence; so they simply had to choose a school elsewhere or drop school altogether.

10. How many casualties did the wire of death make?
The number of casualties varies from a few dozen up to five thousand or more. Probably both numbers are doubtful. To give a reliable estimation one has to define clearly which casualties are included. Only the victims that were electrified or also the ones who were shot near to the fence? Should we start counting from the beginning of the war or from the construction of the wire of death? Professor Vanneste counted some 850 casualties from the construction onward. Probably there were still more, yet few data are kept: Belgium was occupied territory, the border area was forbidden, the press was censored. Hardly any German reports of border patrol are preserved.
Half of the casualties were Belgian, a quarter was German. The others are Dutch (10%), escaped Russian prisoners of war (10%), French (4%) and a few other nationalities. Three quarters of the casualties died from electrocution, 20% from exchange of fire in the vicinity of the fence. Of the remaining 5% the actual cause of death is unknown. Some three hundred casualties fell in Limburg. This Flemish province has the longest border distance, almost half of the 332 kilometres. Antwerp has more than two hundred casualties; one hundred and seventy died in the province of East-Flanders; thirty in West-Flanders. Of eighty victims it is unclear where they were killed. Over the whole period the wire of death made 2,4 casualties per kilometre. This number was highest in Antwerp (2,74) and East-Flanders (2,67), lowest in Limburg (2,1).

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11. How high was the death toll in the border region of Baarle?

Along the borderline with Baarle-Nassau forty-four casualties are registered. Four of these got killed before the construction of the wire of death, so we do not include them in these statistics. The remaining forty casualties make up for 5% of the global number, which somehow reflects the length of the fence in this region ((4,7% of 332 km). Overall there are 2,4 victims per kilometre, near to the border with Baarle-Nassau this number is 2,58. Amongst the casualties are sixteen Belgians (40%), thirteen Germans (33%), five Dutch (12%), two French (5%), two English (5%) and two Russians (5%). This is quite similar to the overall numbers, though there are minor differences. There are less Belgian (-10%) and Russian (-5%) victims; more Germans (+8%), English (+4%), Dutch (+2%) and French (+1%) were killed. One should be aware that the available sources often contradict each other on the cause of death. Probably twenty five people were electrocuted and fourteen shot (nine by German soldiers, three by Belgian border guides, two by Dutch border guards). In one case the cause of death is unclear.

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12. Were people warned of the danger?

Inhabitants of the border region were not really familiar with electricity at the time. They did not fully realize the danger. We know that some manually tested the wires, which was usually fatal. The Germans placed protection wires on either sides of the wire of death. The border area was declared a no go zone. White warning signs were put up, in three languages the message warned ‘High voltage wire, danger of life’. Priests warned the churchgoers for the dangers of the death wire; so did teachers in the classroom.

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13. Who was the youngest victim?

The four-year-old Peter Wuijts lived in Bergeijk in The Netherlands. The family home was near to border pole 187, he lived merely thirty metres from the wire of death fence. He died a gruesome death trying to crawl under the wire when playing. “The father, who witnessed the accident, wanted to lift the child from the wire. Some bystanders stopped him from doing so. They wound rubber around a stick and managed to get the child off the wire. Its arm was burnt through, making the tiny hand fall on the ground.” In Belgium the brothers ’t Seijen were the youngest victims. Carolus, aged 13, and Marcel, 10, died in the night of November 4th, 1917, near to Driehoeven in Kalmthout.

14. Where did the worst incident take place?

In the night of August 25th, 1917 a deadly incident took place nearby the castle of Hoogstraten. German border guards came across some Belgian refugees, four of whom were shot. The casualties were Max Skölle (a German soldier, aged 56), the 16-year-old Charles Farcy from Molenbeek, his brother Henry and the 37-year-old Antoon Van Den Broeck from Antwerp.

 
15. How was the wire of death guarded?

Around the clock there was a guard every fifty up to one hundred and fifty metres. At nighttime the number of border guards was doubled, there were also more patrols. German soldiers were ordered to fire immediately after every unanswered warming. Yet they were not allowed to fire in the direction of The Netherlands. The soldiers walked from one switching cottage to the next one, returning when they met with a colleague halfways. It was kept secret when they were actually on duty. Along the fence there were mines. At some places additional searchlights enabled the guards to control the border area at night. In the daytime air balloons flew over to track people.

The switching cottages contained technical equipment or control devices to discover any sabotage. When that occurred a border guard cycled along the fence to the site of the incident and had to cycle back straightaway to report to his commander. Superior officers were then informed by field telephone. Communication was seriously improved in the winter of 1917-1918. The Germans installed a transmitting station in Kalmthout so that alerts could be given out immediately. The radio room for the border area was set up in the ‘Withof’ (a white mansion) in Minderhout. On the other side of the border the Dutch army patrolled heavily. Unlawful behaviour lead to being arrested on the spot, moreover the Dutch guards did not hesitate to fire if they considered this necessary.

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16. How high was the voltage on the wires?

The current intensity was two thousand Volt. It is doubtful that the Germans were always able to maintain that fatal level. Border guide Jan Vleugels notes in his book ‘De rakkers der grenzen’ (‘Border rascals’) three border crossings at which he had actually felt the current. Whenever the circuit of the wire fence was broken, this was a stroke of luck for many. That was the case when the fence was sabotaged. But sometimes, e.g. in case of a heavy thunderstorm, the Germans switched off the power themselves.

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17. Where did the electric current come from?

Belgium did not yet have power stations, only a few companies had the equipment to generate electricity to supply in their own needs. The region of the Voer and the south of Limburg relied on the transformer kiosk of Reutershag (between Vaals and Aachen), that had a feeder cable to Belgium. The region between Kanne and Maaseik relied on the same power station, as well as on the equipment of the gunpowder factory in Kaulille and the sawmill of the Emsens family in Lommel-Stevensvennen. The Germans made use of the same plants in the north of Limburg to supply the regions of Maaseik to Lozen and further to Lommel-Stevensvennen. The electricity in the region Lommel-Stevensvennen to Minderhout was supplied by Kaulille, Lommel-Stevensvennen and a transformator kiosk in Kapellen. For the western region of the Schelde, sources are less clear. It seems some smaller companies near to the border with Zeeuws-Vlaanderen supplied electricity: an electrical substation in Zelzate, a factory in Moerbeke, etc.

Along the fencing Schalthäuser were built, these switching cottages contained technical equipment and served as sentry boxes for the border guards. There were more than a hundred of these between the river Schelde and Vaals (the tripoint between Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands), the distance between them ranged from one up to two and half kilometres. In the eastern region (from Knokke to the Schelde) not all of them actually were switching cottages, the constructions were just made to look similar. But the switching gear itself was smaller yet more numerously placed in smaller sheds or evacuated houses. Power supply was organised differently here, relying often on smaller varying powerhouses. Maps show that alternating current was used, three-phase current in particular.

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18. How could the wire fence be crossed legally?

At various places one could pass through gates: Zivildurchläße were meant for civilians, Militärdurchläße for the military. Along the border there were seventy-five of them: fifty were reserved for soldiers, nine for civilians, sixteen for mixed traffic. The heavily guarded gates were situated on the main roads or railways. They made it possible to enter the ‘no man’s land’ between the wire of death and the borderline. If one managed to obtain a Passierschein from the local commander, which was quite rare, one could travel to the Netherlands. On January 26th 1915 the occupying force decided to stop granting a Passierschein to any Belgian males aged sixteen to forty-five to keep them from joining the Belgian army. For strategic-military reasons the Germans did not want to block all roads to The Netherlands. One might never know how the relations between the Netherlands and Germany or between Belgium and the Netherlands would evolve during the war.

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19. How could the wire fence be crossed illegally?

Inhabitants of the border area found all kinds of techniques to pass the wire of death. The best way was to bribe the German border guards. For some money the power was switched off during a quarter or so. Many people made the crossing that way, but many were also betrayed by the guard they had made an agreement with. Another successful way was to make use of a drain, sewer, waste pipe or canal under the wire fence. Often they used sticks with an insulated U-profile on top: in this way the bottom wire could be forced ten or twenty centimetres up to win the space needed to pass underneath. In the Limburg region of Kanne or Riemst marl caves had access in both Belgium and the Netherlands. Many people fled through these. As soon as the Germans realized this, they built brick walls to block the entrance. Some people tried to pass the wire with a ladder, yet this often ended tragically. In the region of the Voer refugees used poles to jump over the fencing. Another way was to force a barrel between the wires, if the top and bottom were removed one could pass safely. The same thing happened with bottomless baskets or wooden bins. The easiest way was to use a wooden cycle-wheel, when suspended between the bottom and second wire even inexperienced people had sufficient room to pass safely. Rather elementary was the usage of woollen blankets wound round two wires through which one tried to crawl to the other side. Using rubber instead was more successful: a rubber mat of one to one and a half metre was placed under the bottom wire, this was a reasonably safe way to pass the wires and even hold the wires, as long as one kept one’s feet firmly on the mat. Border guards that helped refugees or spies had rubber gloves, boots or even suits for this purpose. Well protected by rubber gloves they often used an insulated crimping plier to cut the wires. Yet this was risky, as soon as a wire was cut the border guards were alerted. And finally, there was the ‘passeursraam’, a wooden pliable frame of which top and bottom were insulated. When forced between the wires the ‘passeur’ could crawl to the other side.

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20. When was the death wire pulled down?

After the armistice the Belgian authorities claimed the wire of death fence as spoils of war, but it had already disappeared at many places. In Weelde-Statie (Ravels) the fence was pulled down a few days before the end of the war. The materials were used by farmers to fence off their meadows. In some cases it took more time. Farmer Jan Van Looveren from Meer wanted to visit his parents on November 12th 1918, the day after the armistice. They inhabited a small farm in the ‘Beemden’ in Wuustwezel. Assuming the Germans had cut off the power, Jan wanted to crawl through the wires in Gestel (Meer). He took the wire with both hands and so became the very last victim of the wire of death fence!

Sources:

- Prof. dr. VANNESTE A., “Spanning op de rijksgrens van Knokke tot Gemmenich, 1915-1918” in JANSSEN H. (ed.), Hoogspanning aan de Belgisch-Nederlandse grens, Baarle-Hertog-Nassau, Heemkundekring Amalia van Solms, 2013; hoofdstuk 12.

- JANSSEN H., “Dodendraadslachtoffers aan de rijksgrens met Baarle-Nassau” in JANSSEN H. (ed.), Hoogspanning aan de Belgisch-Nederlandse grens, Baarle-Hertog-Nassau, Heemkundekring Amalia van Solms, 2013; hoofdstuk 15.