No Man's Land

No Man's Land is the term used by soldiers to describe the ground between the two opposing trenches. Its width along the Western Front could vary a great deal. The average distance in most sectors was about 250 yards (230 metres). However, at Guillemont it was only 50 yards (46 metres) whereas at Cambrai it was over 500 yards (460 metres). The narrowest gap was at Zonnebeke where British and German soldiers were only about seven yards apart.

No Man's Land contained a considerable amount of barbed wire. In the areas most likely to be attacked, there were ten belts of barbed wire just before the front-line trenches. In some places the wire was more than a 100 feet (30 metres) deep.

No Man's Land at Passchendaele in 1917
No Man's Land at Passchendaele in 1917

If the area had seen a lot of action No Man's Land would be full of broken and abandoned military equipment. After an attack No Man's Land would also contain a large number of bodies. Advances across No Man's Land was always very difficult. Not only did the soldiers have to avoid being shot or blown-up, they also had to cope with barbed-wire and water-filled, shell-holes.

Soldiers were only occasionally involved in a full-scale attack across No Man's Land. However, men were sometimes ordered into No Man's Land to obtain information about the enemy. When a artillery shell had landed just in front of an enemy trench, soldiers were often ordered to take control of the shell-hole and to try and spy on the enemy.

C. R. W. Nevinson, Paths of Glory (1917)
C. R. W. Nevinson, Paths of Glory (1917)

Small patrols were also sent out to obtain information about the enemy. These patrols would go out at night. They would have to crawl forward on their stomachs in an attempt to get close enough to find out what the enemy was up to. If possible, they would try and capture a sentry and bring him back for interrogation. To stop British night patrols the Germans used a light-shell rocket. Suspended from a small parachute, the flare blazed brightly for a minute giving the defending troops a chance to kill the soldiers who had advanced into No Man's Land.

Primary Sources

(1) In a letter to his parents, Second Lieutenant H. E. Cooper explained what it was like to go on a patrol into No Man's Land.

I was asked to take out a patrol of seven men: duties - get out to the position of the German listening post, wait for their patrol and 'scupper' it; also discover what work is being done in their trenches. I choose my favourite corporal and my six most intelligent and courageous men. Bayonets are examined to see if they slip out of the scabbard noiselessly; my revolver is nicely oiled; all spare and superfluous parts of equipment is left behind.

As soon as the dusk is sufficiently dark, we get out into the front of the trenches by climbing up on to the parapet and tumbling over as rapidly as possible so as not to be silhouetted against the last traces of the sunset. Every man knows that he has probably seen his last sunset, for this is the most dangerous thing in war. Out we walk through the barbed wire entanglement zone through which an approaching enemy must climb, but we have a zigzag path through the thirty yards or so of prickly unpleasantness; this path is only known to a few. The night has become horribly dark already, and the stillness of the night is broken only by the croaking of many frogs, the hoot of an owl and the boom of distant guns in the south.

We all advance slowly and carefully, wriggling along through the grass for a hundred yards or so, past the two lines of willow trees and across the stream, now practically dry. There we lie and wait and listen. For an hour we lie in absolute silence. It is a weary game and extremely trying to one's nerves, for hearing and sight are strained to the utmost. Tiny noises are magnified a hundredfold - a rat nibbling at the growing corn or a rabbit scuttling along gives us all the jumps until we learn to differentiate the different sounds. In the German trenches we hear the faint hum of conversation. Nothing is to be heard near us, but there is a very ominous sign - no shots are being fired from the trenches in front of us, no flares are being sent up and there is no working party out. This points to only one thing and that is that they also have a patrol out.

Suddenly quite close to the corporal and myself there is a heavy rustling in the grass on the right. Now, if never before, I know the meaning of - is it fear? My heart thumps so heavily that they surely must hear it, my face is covered with a cold perspiration, my revolver hammer goes back with a sharp click and my hand trembles.

(2) Siegfried Sassoon described in his diary details of a patrol into No Man's Land that took place on 25th May 1916.

Twenty-seven men with faces blackened and shiny - with hatchets in their belts, bombs in pockets, knobkerries - waiting in a dug-out in the reserve line. At 10.30 they trudge up to Battalion H.Q. splashing through the mire and water in a chalk trench, while the rain comes steadily down. Then up to the front-line. In a few minutes they have gone over and disappeared into the rain and darkness.

I am sitting on the parapet listening for something to happen - five, ten, nearly fifteen minutes - not a sound - nor a shot fired - and only the usual flare-lights. Then one of the men comes crawling back; I follow him to our trench and he tells me that they can't get through. They are all going to throw a bomb and retire.

A minute or two later a rifle-shot rings out and almost simultaneously several bombs are thrown by both sides; there are blinding flashes and explosions, rifle-shots, the scurry of feet, curses and groans, and stumbling figures loom up and scramble over the parapet - some wounded. When I've counted sixteen in, I go forward to see how things are going. Other wounded men crawl in; I find one hit in the leg; he says O'Brien is somewhere down the crater badly wounded. They are still throwing bombs and firing at us: the sinister sound of clicking bolts seem to be very near; perhaps they have crawled out of their trench and are firing from behind the advanced wire.

At last I find O'Brien down a deep (about twenty-five feet) and precipitous crater. He is moaning and his right arm is either broken or almost shot off: he is also hit in the right leg. Another man is with him; he is hit in the right arm. I leave them there and get back to the trench for help, shortly afterwards Lance-Corporal Stubbs is brought in (he has had his foot blown off). I get a rope and two more men and go back to O'Brien, who is unconscious now. With great difficulty we get him half-way up the face of the crater; it is now after one o'clock and the sky is beginning to get lighter. I make one more journey to our trench for another strong man and to see to a stretcher being ready. We get him in, and it is found that he has died, as I had feared.

(3) Ernst Toller, I Was a German (1933)

One night we heard a cry, the cry of one in excruciating pain; then all was quiet again. Someone in his death agony, we thought. But an hour later the cry came again. It never ceased the whole night. Nor the following night. Naked and inarticulate the cry persisted. We could not tell whether it came from the throat of German or Frenchman. It existed in its own right, an agonized indictment of heaven and earth. We thrust our fingers into our ears to stop its moan; but it was no good; the cry cut like a drill into our heads, dragging minutes into hours, hours into years. We withered and grew old between those cries.

Later we learned that it was one of our own men hanging on the wire. Nobody could do anything for him; two men had already tried to save him, only to be shot themselves. We prayed desperately for his death. He took so long about it, and if he went on much longer we should go mad. But on the third day his cries were stopped by death.

(4) Captain Geoffrey Donaldson, letter to his mother (23rd June, 1916)

The night before last I took out a patrol of four men about half way across No Man's Land. There is comparatively little risk attached to this work but it is of course a considerable strain on the nerves. Last night, I went out with Wakefield and a wiring party, that is to say with about six men improving our wire entanglements. I consider on the the whole this is a nerve-racking a job as any, more so than patrol work. You must not think I shall go out like this every night. I have been out the last two nights as much to set an example and get the thing going as anything.

(5) Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1929)

Dunn showed me around the line. The battalion frontage was about eight hundred yards. Each company held some two hundred of these, with two platoons in the front line, and two in the support line about a hundred yards back. He introduced me to the platoon sergeants, more particularly to Sergeant Eastmond and told him to give me any information I wanted; then went back to sleep, asking to be woken at once if anything went wrong. I found myself in charge of the line. Sergeant Eastmond being busy with a working-party.

I went round by myself. The men of the working-party, whose job was to replace the traverses, or safety-buttresses, of the trench, looked curiously at me. They were filling sandbags with earth, piling them up bricklayer fashion, the headers and stretchers alternating, then patting them flat with spades. The sentries stood on the fire-step at the comers of the traverses, stamping their feet and blowing on their fingers. Every now and then they peered over the top for a few seconds. Two parties, each of an N.C.O. and two men, were out in the company listening-posts, connected with the front trench by a sap about fifty yards long. The German front line stretched some three hundred yards beyond. From berths hollowed in the sides of the trench and curtained with sandbags came the grunt of sleeping me.

I jumped up on the fire-step beside the sentry and cautiously raised my head, staring over the parapet. I could see nothing except the wooden pickets supporting our protecting barbed-wire entanglements, and a dark patch or two of bushes beyond. The darkness seemed to move and shake about as I looked at it; the bushes started travelling, singly at first, then both together. The pickets did the same. I was glad of the sentry beside me; he gave his name as Beaumont. 'They're quiet tonight, sir,' he said.

I said: It's funny how those bushes seem to move.'

'Aye, they do play queer tricks. Is this your first spell in trenches?"

A German flare shot up, broke into bright flame, dropped slowly and went hissing into the grass just behind our trench, showing up the bushes and pickets. Instinctively I moved.

'It's bad to do that, sir,' he said, as a rifle-bullet cracked and seemed to pass right between us. 'Keep still, sir, and they can't spot you. Not but what a flare is a bad thing to fall on you. I've seen them burn a hole in a man.'

(6) John Raws, letter to a friend (4th August 1916)

We do all our fighting and moving at night and the confusion of passing through a barrage of enemy shells is pretty appalling. You've read of the wrecked villages? Well, some of these about here are not wrecked. They are utterly destroyed, so that there are not even skeletons of building left - nothing but a churned mass of debris, with bricks, stones and girders and bodies pounded to nothing. And forests! There are not even tree trunks left - not a leaf or a twig. All is buried and churned up again and buried again. The sad part is that one can see no end of this. If we live tonight we have to go through tomorrow night - and next week - and next month.

(7) Charles Hudson, journal entry, quoted in Soldier, Poet, Rebel (2007)

No man's land in the salient varied from a few yards, incredible as this sounds, to about a hundred yards. Shelling was not as common in the front line itself as further back owing to the proximity of the enemy. Trench mortar fire and rifle grenades were our bugbears in the front line. I preferred, of the two, shelling. A shell came quickly, a trench mortar rose high into the air and then on reaching the apex of its flight came down, turning over and over like an old boot, landing with a thud before it burst. From the apex downwards it always appeared to be making straight for you if you watched it, much as the eyes of a portrait seem to follow the viewer round a room. I learned not to look.

(8) Arnold Ridley, The Train and Other Ghosts (1970c)

As it went, it wasn't a question of "if I get killed", it was merely a question of "when I get killed", because a battalion went over 800 strong, you lost 300 or 400, half the number, perhaps more. Now it wasn't a question of saying, "I am one of the survivors, hurrah, hurrah", because you didn't go home.... Out came another draft of 400 and you went over the top again.

There was an awful feeling of a great black cloud on top of one the whole time, there seemed to be no future...! think one lost one's sensitivity. You lived like a worm and your horizon was very limited to "shall I get back in time for the parcel to come? Shall I ever get back to eat that cake that I know mother has sent me?" You certainly lived one day at a time. I didn't dare think of tomorrow It was general abject misery. I think your imagination became dulled. I think in the end you just became a thing.

(9) Robert Sherriff, No Leading Lady (1968)

At dawn on the morning of the attack, the battalion assembled in the mud outside the huts. I lined up my platoon and went through the necessary inspection. Some of the men looked terribly ill: grey, worn faces in the dawn, unshaved and dirty because there was no clean water. I saw the characteristic shrugging of their shoulders that I knew so well. They hadn't had their clothes off for weeks, and their shirts were full of lice.

Our progress to the battle area was slow and difficult. We had to move forward in single file along the duckboard tracks that were loose and slimy. If you slipped off, you went up to your knees in mud.

During the walk the great bombardment from the British guns fell silent. For days it had wracked our nerves and destroyed our sleep. The sudden silence was uncanny. A sort of stagnant emptiness surrounded us. Your ears still sang from the incessant uproar, but now your mouth went dry. An orchestral overture dies away in a theatre as the curtain rises, so the great bombardment faded into silence as the infantry went into the attack. We knew now that the first wave had left the British front-line trenches, that we were soon to follow...

All of us, I knew, had one despairing hope in mind: that we should be lucky enough to be wounded, not fatally, but severely enough to take us out of this loathsome ordeal and get us home. But when we looked across that awful slough ahead of us, even the thought of a wound was best forgotten. If you were badly hit, unable to move, what hope was there of being carried out of it? The stretcher bearers were valiant men, but there were far too few of them...

The order came to advance. There was no dramatic leap out of the trenches. The sandbags on the parapet were so slimy with rain and rotten with age that they fell apart when you tried to grip them. You had to crawl out through a slough of mud. Some of the older men, less athletic than the others, had to be heaved out bodily.

From then on, the whole thing became a drawn-out nightmare. There were no tree stumps or ruined buildings ahead to help you keep direction. The shelling had destroyed everything. As far as you could see, it was like an ocean of thick brown porridge. The wire entanglements had sunk into the mud, and frequently, when you went in up to the knees, your legs would come out with strands of barbed wire clinging to them, and your hands torn and bleeding through the struggle to drag them off...

All this area had been desperately fought over in the earlier battles of Ypres. Many of the dead had been buried where they fell and the shells were unearthing and tossing up the decayed bodies. You would see them flying through the air and disintegrating...

In the old German trench we came upon a long line of men, some lolling on the fire step, some sprawled on the ground, some standing upright, leaning against the trench wall. They were British soldiers - all dead or dying. Their medical officer had set up a first-aid station here, and these wounded men had crawled to the trench for his help. But the doctor and his orderlies had been killed by a shell that had wrecked his station, and the wounded men could only sit or lie there and die. There was no conceivable hope of carrying them away.

We came at last to some of the survivors of the first wave. They had reached what had once been the German support line, still short of their objective. An officer said, "I've got about fifteen men here. I started with a hundred. I don't know where the Germans are." He pointed vaguely out across the land ahead.

"They're somewhere out there. They've got machine guns, and you can see those masses of unbroken barbed wire. It's useless to go on. The best you can do is to bring your men in and hold the line with us."

We were completely isolated. The only communication with the rear was to scribble messages in notebooks and give them to orderlies to take back. But the orderlies wouldn't have the faintest idea where the nearest command post was, even if they survived.

We found an old German shelter and brought into it all our wounded that we could find. We carried pocket first-aid dressings, but the small pads and bandages were useless on great gaping wounds. You did what you could, but it was mainly a matter of watching them slowly bleed to death...

It came to an end for me sometime that afternoon. For an hour or more we waited in that old German trench. Sometimes a burst of machine-gun bullets whistles overhead, as if the Germans were saying, "Come on if you dare".

Our company commander had made his headquarters under a few sheets of twisted corrugated iron.

"I want you to explore along the trench,' he (Warre-Dymond) said to me, and see whether you can find B Company (it was in fact D Company). They started off on our right flank, but I haven't seen anything of them since. If you can find them, we can link up together and get some sort of order into things.'

So I set off with my runner. It was like exploring the mountains of the moon. We followed the old trench as best we could...

We heard the thin whistle of its approach, rising to a shriek. It landed on top of a concrete pillbox that we were passing, barely five yards away. A few yards further, and it would have been the end of us. The crash was deafening. My runner let out a yell of pain. I didn't yell so far as I know because I was half-stunned. I remember putting my hand to the right side of my face and feeling nothing; to my horror I thought that the whole side had been blown away.

(10) Arnold Ridley, The Train and Other Ghosts (1970c)

We were told that there was a pocket of resistance left over and that two advances had left this pocket and we were told that we would attack. We would get a five minute barrage, which we got, but Jerry and the German machine guns were firing, saying "we know you are coming over, come on, where are you?" Although the plans had gone wrong, the whistles blew and we went over the top just the same. At that time I was a bomber and we got down to the first trench...

I went round one of the traverses, as far as I remember, and somebody hit me on the head with a rifle butt. I was wearing a tin hat, fortunately, but it didn't do me much good. A chap came at me with a bayonet, aiming for a very critical part naturally and I managed to push it down, I got a bayonet wound in the groin. After that I was still very dizzy, from this blow on the head presumably. I remember wrestling with another German and the next thing I saw, it appeared to me that my left hand had gone. After that, I was unconscious...

I always remember my disappointment the next morning when I found that my hand was still on because I thought, well, if I lost my hand I'm all right, I shall live, they can't send me out without a hand again. I was 20 then, it's not altogether a right thought for a young man to hope that he's been maimed for life.

(11) (11) Basil Rathbone, In and Out of Character (1956)

Camouflage suits had been made for us to resemble trees. On our heads we wore wreaths of freshly plucked foliage; our faces and hands were blackened with burnt cork. About 5.00am we crawled through our wire and lay up in No-Man's-Land. All sentries had been alerted to our movements.

For several days we tested our adventure, and it soon became evident that the enemy had no suspicions whatsoever of our presence. We were able accurately to locate German machine-gun positions, which were later phoned back to artillery and put out of action. We also noted a sparseness of enemy front line positions, supporting High Command's contention that something was up.