A Chilling Legend of What Lived between the Trenches of WWI

'No man's land' is land that is unoccupied or is under dispute between parties that leave it unoccupied due to fear or uncertainty. The term was originally used to define a contested territory or a dumping ground for refuse between fiefdoms. It is now most commonly associated with the First World War to describe the area of land between two enemy trench systems to which neither side wished to move openly or to seize due to fear of being attacked by the enemy in the process

During the Great War, a frightening legend regarding this 'no man's land' arose out of the real-life horrors that were taking place during this bloody conflict. Like all legends, it has several variants, but at the heart of each of them were sightings, stories and encounters with ghostly scar-faced and fearless deserters banding together from nearly all sides—Australian, Austrian, British, Canadian, French, German, and Italian, living deep beneath the abandoned trenches and dugouts of no man's land. According to some versions, the deserters scavenged corpses for clothing, food and weapons. And in at least one version, the deserters emerged nightly as ghoulish beasts, to gorge upon the dead and dying, waging savage battles over the decomposing food source.

Historian Paul Fussell called the tale the “finest legend of the war, the most brilliant in literary invention and execution as well as the richest in symbolic suggestion” in his prize-winning 1975 book. Fussell, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania who had served as a lieutenant during World War II, knew well the horrors of combat, which he vividly described in his 1989 Wartime.

One of the earliest published versions of the “wild deserters” legend appeared in the 1920 memoir The Squadroon by Ardern Arthur Hulme Beaman, a lieutenant colonel in the British cavalry. No other recount of the legend is as sickening as Beaman’s. Written just two years after the war’s end, Beaman's tale begins in early 1918 on the marshes of the Somme in northern France. This is where some of the bloodiest battles of the war were fought and Beaman is convinced that he has witnessed two dozen or so German prisoners of war vanish into the ground. He wants to send a search party into the maze of abandoned trenches but is advised against it because the area “was peopled with wild men, British, French, Australian, German deserters, who lived there underground, like ghouls among the mouldering dead, and who came out at nights to plunder and to kill. In the night, an officer told him, mingled with the snarling of carrion dogs, they often heard inhuman cries and rifle shots coming from that awful wilderness as though the bestial denizens were fighting among themselves.”

In the 1930 novel Behind the Lines by Walter Frederick Morris, who had served in the war as a battalion commander, the protagonist Peter Rawley, a second lieutenant, deserts his Royal Field Artillery unit after killing his company commander. Somewhere on the battlefields of France, Rawley meets up with Alf, another deserter, who leads him underground. “Rawley squeezed through the hole, feet first. He found himself in a low and narrow tunnel, revetted with rotting timbers and half-blocked with falls of earth. . . . The whole place was indescribably dirty and had a musty, earthy, garlicky smell, like the lair of a wild beast. . . . ‘Where do you draw your rations?’ asked Rawley. . . . ‘Scrounge it, [Alf] answered, . . . We live like perishin’ fightin’ cocks sometimes, I give you my word. . . . There’s several of us livin’ round ’ere in these old trenches, mostly working in pairs.”

Another gruesome description of wartime outlaws and deserters came in the 1948 five-volume autobiography Laughter in the Next Room by Sir Osbert Sitwell, a fifth baronet and a captain in the Army (he was also the younger brother of the poet Dame Edith Sitwell). In recalling Armistice Day 1918, Sitwell wrote, “For four long years . . . the sole internationalism—if it existed—had been that of deserters from all the warring nations, French, Italian, German, Austrian, Australian, English, Canadian. Outlawed, these men lived—at least, they lived—in caves and grottoes under certain parts of the front line. Cowardly but desperate as the lazzaroni of the old Kingdom of Naples, or the bands of beggars and coney catchers of Tudor times, recognizing no right, and no rules save of their own making, they would issue forth, it was said, from their secret lairs, after each of the interminable checkmate battles, to rob the dying of their few possessions—treasures such as boots or iron rations—and leave them dead.” Sitwell’s concluding note is equally chilling: British troops believed “that the General Staff could find no way of dealing with these bandits until the war was over, and that in the end they [the deserters] had to be gassed.” 

A more recent literary account comes in 1985 from No Man’s Land by Reginald Hill, author of some 50 novels, many of them police procedurals. The novel begins with Josh Routledge, a British deserter from the Battle of the Somme, and a German soldier-turned-pacifist, Lothar von Seeberg, being chased by mounted military police. Out of almost nowhere, a band of 40 deserters, mostly Australian, attack the military police, and take Josh and Lothar into their dugout. “They were a wild-looking gang, in dirty ragged clothing and with unkempt hair and unshaven faces. They were also very well armed.” In a second instance, these deserters come “swarming out of nowhere, out of the bowels of the earth, that’s how it looked. . . . They was scruffy, dead scruffy. Sort of rugged and wild-looking, more like a bunch of pirates than anything. There was one big brute, nigh on seven foot tall he looked.”

The legend seems to have also taken root in modern journalistic accounts. James Carroll in the International Herald Tribune noted in 2006 how World War I deserters refusing to fight “had organized themselves into a kind of third force—not fighters any more, but mere survivors, at home in the caverns. Dozens of them, perhaps hundreds. Human beings caring for one another, no matter what uniform they were wearing.” According to Carroll’s interpretation, these deserters were like angels, taking care of those who had fallen into the safety of the underground caverns—acting as a sane alternative to the insanity of war.

The 'wild deserters' of no man’s land, whether angels or devils—or even flesh-eating ghosts who emerge only at night—is the stuff of a legend tremendously rich in illustrative value. It reminds us today, a century after it began, of the lunacy, chaos and meaninglessness of all the horrors of war.