No Man's Land and the Western Front in the Great War

The term 'No man's land' appeared in the Doomsday book -namesmaneslande - and referred to any unclaimed land in the town or countryside. It has also been written as: 'No Man's Land', 'No-man's-land', 'Nomansland' and almost every combination of the three words one can think of. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) unequivocally spells it as 'No man's land'. The OED describes it as: a medieval a piece of waste or unwanted land; a plot of ground lying outside the north wall of London used as a place of execution in the Middle Ages; a space amidships used to hold blocks and tackle in the time of sail; and, in a military connotation, an unoccupied space between fronts of opposing fortresses. No date or reference is given by the OED for the etymology of the latter term, but it is quite evident that it was not widely used by the British Regular Army when the BEF first arrived in France in 1914. The terms most frequently used by the British Expeditionary Force in 1914 were: 'between the trenches' or 'between the lines'. However, the future innovator of the tank, Ernest Swinton (later Major General), certainly used the term as a war correspondence on the Western Front, with specific mention of the terms with respect to the 'race to the sea' in late 1914.

However, it was the famous Anglo-German Christmas Truce of 1914 which brought the term into common use, and thereafter it appears constantly in official communiqu├ęs, newspaper reports and the journals and letters of the members of the BEF. The term is so well known it is often omitted from the index of books on the Western Front.

Modus operandi
In this military operations form, No man's land assumed enormous importance to the combatant armies. Varying in width from a few metres to thousands, it served as the juncture where the armies actually faced up to each other, and from where offensives were launched on the enemy. Classically this would be a mass advance from the trenches - 'over the top' - as the men stormed across No man's land under the cover of an artillery barrage. But many other activities took place over this strip of No man's land. These included, raiding parties, usually at night, when prisoners were sought for interrogation, listening patrols, hoping to gain intelligence on the activities of the enemy, sniper clearance and the repair and development of the defensive works. To facilitate these activities forward trenches (saps) were clandestinely dug to allow a concealed approach to the enemy's trench system and, on occasion, the storming and bombing of these and other fortifications.

Specialist mining units (often manned by former British coal- and tin-miners) waged a constant campaign to dig tunnels under No man's land to place explosive charges under the strategic locations of the enemies' trenches and fortifications. Often these efforts met with considerable success. Large, preserved, mine craters can still be found on the former Western Front in demonstration of the efficacy of these explosions, .e.g. Lochnager Mine Crater at la Boisselle.

For some front-line troops No man's land offered the opportunity to develop a system of 'live and let live' where the motions of war were carried out without resource to any particularly aggressive action. But for other units it offered the opportunity to prosecute the war on a continually active basis using every chance to harass the enemy. Some of these units (e.g. 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers) made claims that No man's land belonged to them. In his book - Goodbye to all that. - Robert Graves, an officer in the 2nd Royal Welch, states that in July 1915, "It was a point of honour to dominate No man's land from dawn to dusk." Such units were often led by officers and NCO's who had gained a reputation for their aggressive war-like attitude and earned the sobriquet 'thrusters' or 'fire-eaters'. Accordingly, such thruster units were much prized by the General Staff and were frequently cited by them as examples for other units to emulate. As a consequence of these aggressive tendencies, casualties in these elite units were usually high and they required frequent drafts of reinforcements. It was not unusual for a single draft to equal 500 men - half the strength of a battalion on active service.

The perils of No man's land were rarely under-estimated by the front line troops. Those who were careless, over-confident, or just plain unlucky, often met a gruesome end amongst the coiled wire and reeking shell-holes. Many of the 'lost in No man's land' have no known grave.

Add comment

Security code

Back to top