Where Did No Man’s Land Come From?

No matter how terrifying or dangerous the trenches were, they were by no means worse than the so-called “No Man’s Land”. Full of crater holes and constantly surveyed by countless machine guns, snipers and artillery units, it became one of the most difficult battlegrounds to get across.

No Man’s Land was a military term first used to describe a zone in modern warfare in the 19th century, however it has history all the way back to medieval times, where it was the title used for lands outside the walls of London, often used for punishing criminals.

With the start of World War I, armies realised that the whole campaign was descending into a serious trench warfare situation. With the invention of the machine gun and heavy artillery, staying standing above the ground was possibly one of the most dangerous things you could do. The only way out was to dig down, and settle in a dugout, waiting until you could properly advance upon the enemy.

Trenches on the front faced each other in two long lines, and the area between them was frequently pummelled with shells and mines, destroying the previously peaceful and beautiful farmland that had existed before the turmoil had began. It wasn’t just an advantage to bomb around the enemy’s trench – it was a necessity.

One soldier wrote that “the British exploded mines under some workings of the Germans near their trenches, to prevent them blowing our own trench up”.

The emergence of barbed wire in the 19th century brought ideas of its use to the military, and before long the cheap fence alternative was being used as a brutal, tearing, killing device. One side would tie masses of it in front of their dugout. If the enemy attempted to reach their trench, they would be cut down, but if the subject wanted to escape the trenches and lead an advance, they could launch a smoke bomb and carefully creep through their own wire. Genius, but a terrifying concept none the less.

The average distance between a British and German dugout was a little over 200 metres, however in Zonnebeke, they were as close as 5 meters. No Man’s Land appeared in this area, and the term came into regular use. Sometimes this plot of “unclaimed territory” was deliberately flooded by the side that had the high ground. Shell holes filled up with water and the ground became unstable, giving way to torrents of mud that would sink soldiers in and drown them. Finally, rotten flesh and decaying bodies were piled on top.

“Just now the whole countryside is covered with snow and moving objects are distinguishable a long way off”

All that made an advance into this unknown and uninhabitable land extremely difficult for both sides. The awkwardness of combat in World War I lead to the invention of the tank, or “land ship” in 1916.

In the night, patrols were regularly sent out to crawl across the dark landscape to the enemy trenches. Sentries and other men with knowledge about battle plans would be taken captive and hauled back with the men to their own trenches. German commanders realised that by launching “flare bombs” above No Man’s Land they could make the area as bright as day, and capture/shoot the patrollers.

Additionally, some soldiers were sent on recovery missions to bring back hiding troops or take weapons, food and clothes from dead troops on the field.

No Man’s Land also became a war ground underneath the muddy surface. The Germans and English would dig timber supported tunnels under the soil and when the enemy was reached, they’d place a bomb, block up the tunnel, and detonate the explosive. The combination of fighting above and below ground, as well as in the air, made the whole zone “the abode of madness”.

Running across the barbed wire ridden, crater-full, black and sludgy middle-terrain between the two trenches became a horrible prospect for all soldiers.

This quote is from a letter written by a combatant who showed great courage in the face of a large explosion:

“I had gone about half the required distance when a shell fell only a yard from where I was, the force of the concussion pitched me several yards to my left and I came down rather heavily”

First hand accounts like this really demonstrate the bravery of those men who attempted to cross No Man’s Land. The shelling of this dangerous land had its longer lasting effects too – you can still see sites where crater holes exist. Engagements often occurred near villages and towns, so the trenches could be resupplied, and the latest news could be relayed through the town to someone who could carry it to the home front. Multiple French villages were shut down because of the amount of unexploded substances that have been left in them after the war.

Phrases like “No Man’s Land”, “trenches” and “shelling” conjure up some nasty and horrific pictures in people’s minds. It’s truly horrible.

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