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Hanging On The Old Barbed Wire

During the First World War, the casualties suffered on even a single day could be enormous – and a system had to be put in place to deal with the injured. There was a great expansion of medical facilities and in the British Army area in France the number of medical officers increased from 200 to over 10,000.

Clearing stations were set up just behind the front lines with base hospitals to the rear and a further move back to the more extensive medical facilities in Britain, if that proved necessary.While humanitarian concern for the wounded motivated many of the doctors and nurses, there was another reason for the vast expansion of the medical network. During the great battles, high numbers of casualties reduced fighting units to a skeleton, depleting armies and rendering them impotent.

The military command required an efficient system for clearing the badly wounded from the front and quickly treating those with lesser injuries, to ensure their speedy return to the trenches. In the British Army, senior officers tended to regard any sign of weakness among their troops as cowardice. So, ordinary soldiers were on the receiving end of harsh discipline and military courts when they were unable to function as soldiers due to mental stress.

Soldiers soon learnt to recognise the type of wounds that would ensure their evacuation from the horror of the front for good. To have a ‘Blighty one’ was regarded by many men as preferable to staying on in the trenches. Those that did stay on often became cynical, nihilistic and a little bit crazy. Hanging On The Old Barbed Wire, sung here by Chumbawamba, was written by soldiers in the trenches. Designed to be sung whilst marching, the song is one of many showing the ordinary soldier’s dissent and disgust at the war and also at the inequalities within the army system.

Hanging On The Old Barbed Wire

If you want to find the general
I know where he is
I know where he is
I know where he is
If you want to find the general
I know where he is
He’s pinning another medal on his chest
I saw him, I saw him
Pinning another medal on his chest
Pinning another medal on his chest

If you want to find the colonel
I know where he is
I know where he is
I know where he is
If you want to find the colonel
I know where he is
He’s sitting in comfort stuffing his bloody gut
I saw him, I saw him
Sitting in comfort stuffing his bloody gut

If you want to find the sergeant
I know where he is
I know where he is
I know where he is
If you want to find the sergeant
I know where he is
He’s drinking all the company rum
I saw him, I saw him
Drinking all the company rum
Drinking all the company rum

If you want to find the private
I know where he is
I know where he is
I know where he is
If you want to find the private
I know where he is
He’s hanging on the old barbed wire
I saw him, I saw him
Hanging on the old barbed wire
Hanging on the old barbed wire

By the end of the war, some 80,000 front-line troops had been treated for various types of psychological breakdowns, which became known as ‘shell shock’. At first, it was thought that the cause of shell shock lay in gases escaping from exploding shells. Others thought that shock waves from the explosions were responsible. Daniel Pick examined these theories in his book, War Machine – The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age:

‘For conventional medico-psychiatry, the First World War disturbances presented real diagnostic difficulties: how to make sense of this ‘no man’s land’ of illness, which seemed to negate commonly held beliefs about valour and masculinity, and to defy the prevailing organic models of insanity and its aetiology? The idea that the shellshocked were all hereditary degenerates or that their condition could be put down to the commotional effects of exploding shells on the central nervous system proved increasingly unsustainable.

Yet shellshock could not be explained away as malingering. It blurred the distinctions between neurosis and insanity – and it was a crisis on a massive scale. According to one account in 1916, shellshock cases constituted up to 40 per cent of the casualties from heavy fighting zones; more alarmingly still, officers seemed especially prone to it. Army statistics revealed that officers were more than twice as likely to suffer from mental breakdown on the battlefield as men of the ranks.’
[From – War Machine – The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age by Daniel Pick, Yale University Press 1993].

This song was chosen by Aly Renwick who served with the Royal Engineers in Thailand and is a member of Veterans For Peace.