World War 1 History: The Dutch-Belgian Wire of Death

WW1: The high voltage border obstacle on the Belgian Dutch border of 1915-1918
WW1: The high voltage border obstacle on the Belgian Dutch border of 1915-1918 | Source

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.

WW1: Constructing the fence in a flooded area.
WW1: Constructing the fence in a flooded area. | Source

Electric Fence

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.

WW1: A small guard house along a dike.
WW1: A small guard house along a dike. | Source

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), 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.

WW1: In the foreground soldiers of a Dutch borderpatrol. On the other side of the fence a German soldier. In between them a body lying under the deadly wire. To remove bodies the current had to be switched off.
WW1: In the foreground soldiers of a Dutch borderpatrol. On the other side of the fence a German soldier. In between them a body lying under the deadly wire. To remove bodies the current had to be switched off. | Source

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” or 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.

WW1: The high voltage border obstacle on the Belgian Dutch border of 1915-1918 from the Dutch side.
WW1: The high voltage border obstacle on the Belgian Dutch border of 1915-1918 from the Dutch side. | Source

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.

Lasting Effects

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 Stretched Between Vaals (A) and the Schelde River (B)

show route and directions
A markervaals, netherland -
6291 Vaals, The Netherlands
[get directions]

B markerpotpolderweg, belgium -
Potpolderweg, 2040 Antwerpen, Belgium
[get directions]

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Comments 15 comments

rlbert00 profile image

rlbert00 4 years ago from USA

I do thoroughly enjoy reading these articles about WWI, I have very little working knowledge of it. Again, had never heard this story before and it only adds to the vision that I have of Europe during WWI, pure hell. WWII was no picnic certainly, but the ferocity of WWI seems to be on a whole different level. Enjoyed the article and learned another something new, nicely done.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest

Another interesting Hub - especially liked "so they would have one less country to fight". Wish I had the time to be researching and writing stuff like this right now, but I'm enjoying the results of your efforts!


fayyazattock profile image

fayyazattock 4 years ago from attock pakistan

It is an interesting hub about what happened to Europe in WW1 and also to know how cruel was the history of mankind. Nice hub keep it up.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Hi, rlbert00. This was one of those nuggets I came across a while ago and I felt pretty much the same as you-- wow, never heard of that. One of the things about World War I that always bothers me is how it permanently brutalized the world. Thanks again for reading and commenting.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks, aethelthryth. Sometimes I spend too much time researching-- I tend to follow bright and shiny things and go off on a tangent, but I also sometimes come across some weirdly interesting stuff. I'll just enjoy it while I do have the time.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

fayyazattock, thank you for your comment. I hope to find some uplifting stories, but they are few and far between. I fear the Christmas of 1914 in the trenches has been done to death, so I will have to keep looking.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland

A very interesting hub. Although since WW1 there have been many documentaries, books and other media about the war, there is always things that are new. The story of this horrible electric fence is new for me and was fascinating - especially the genius of many who managed to get across the live wires!

I'm sure that was a great day for Belgium when that dreaded and deadly fence could finally be torn down!

Great hub + voted up interesting + awesome!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Than you very much Seeker7 for your kind words and vote ups. They are much appreciated. It's amazing, isn't it, how much we don't know!


ElizaDoole profile image

ElizaDoole 4 years ago from London

Fascinating war history fact. That was a very large fence and it goes to show that when there is a ground military effort a fence is as good a defence as any! Voted up.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thank you for commenting, Eliza, and for the vote up. It's interesting what efforts are undertaken during war. I've got a million men over here, another million over there-- oh, now I need to build a 200 mile fence to keep the natives in and the neighbors out.


Charlotte Saelemakers 3 years ago

Hello,

I am looking for English partners to contribute to a European project on the Wire of Death.

Do you know an organization or researcher that is interested in participating on this project (project-description attached)? Maybe an organization that did some investigation to the “neutrality of the Netherlands” or the spying, or the refugees that came to England through the Netherlands?

Thank you so much for spreading this call!

Kind regards,


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Charlotte, thanks so much for your comment. It sounds like an interesting project. I wish I knew more about WW1 and the Netherlands. I understand that many British soldier/sailors of the Naval Division fighting in Antwerp (I believe) during the early stages of the war fled to the Netherlands where they were held in relative comfort for the duration (the Dutch had to adhere to the strict requirements of neutrality to keep Germany from attacking them). Later, in 1940, the Germans showed that just "being neutral" wasn't enough and invaded. The Swiss at that time managed to back up their neutrality with muscle, hence the Germans figured the losses wouldn't be worth the gain.


paul-knokke-heist 2 years ago

Electric fence belgium-holland (dutch) boarder :

Charlotte, sice 1 year , I am making a study of this case.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Good luck on your project, Paul. I found it a fascinating subject and that just declaring neutrality is not enough-- it has to be backed up with force.


egbertus laarman 22 months ago

My grandfather has been in ww 1 . His name was Jan Laarman d.o.b 12-12 -18-81 died 9-5-19-31

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