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It could be half a mile wide, it could be 20 yards wide. In places it dwin­dled to nothing as one army’s trench­ line ran straight into its opponent’s. The enemy might be a distant stranger or he might be so near you could hear him talk, cough, laugh, give or respond to orders, scream with pain.

It could be a place where larks sang and flowers grew. One young British officer, as he advanced across it in the wake of the huge mine explosions that opened the Battle of Messines in 1917, was astonished to see clumps of grass and yellow iris. He mused later: “How these plants and grasses escaped destruc­tion I cannot imagine.”

But mostly no­ man’s-land on the Western Front of World War I was a region of horror to zero, the necessary gaps often were not cut. As you clawed at the uncut wire you were the easiest of targets. Sometimes bodies stayed exposed on it for days. This phenomenon provided the grim payoff line to one of the most cyni­cal of British soldiers’ songs:

If you want to find the old battalion,

I know where they are, I know where they are….

They’re hanging on the old barbed wire.

No-man’s-land might be defined as the disputed space between Allied and German trenches–from the coast at one end to Switzerland 470 miles away at the other–which became the princi­pal killing field of a notoriously cruel and inhuman war. Inevitably it drew sharp comment from those who con­ templated it , or faced the prospect of going out into it. The writer Edmund Blunden scorned it as “no man’s ditch.” The artist Keith Henderson exclaimed: “Of no-man’s-land itself, perhaps, the less said the better. No beast’s land­ call it that rather.” Before having cause and desolation. Its standard ter­rain was a mix of shell holes and mud. Its decor consisted of rotting cadavers and smashed weaponry–the in­evitable human to fear it, Charles Carrington and his comrades dubbed it “the Racecourse.” The poet Charles Hamilton Sorley, stimulated by it, even finding “a free­dom and a spur” in seeking out the enemy in its dangerous spaces, never­theless saw its hazards and named  it “the long graveyard”; he himself died on its edge, shot by a sniper during the Battle of Loos in October 1915. A greenhorn British infantry officer, Lt. Colin Hunt, peered through a periscope at the “desolate scene” facing him in 1916 at Ploegsteert (“Plugstreet” to the British) on the Franco-Belgian border and commented in a letter to his wife: “It is indescribably weird to watch the country behind the enemy lines and think of the impossible gulf that separates it from us.”

Yet against popular conception­–certainly against the vision of most filmmakers, who would have the West­ern Front as one long tornado of frenzied action–trench life for the most part was a matter of watching and waiting rather than fighting, so that Lieutenant Hunt’s “impossible gulf” could often appear to the observer as merely a frieze of dead ground, a still­-life, not a rat stirring. It was thus for a Second Lt. E. J. Ruffell when in 1917 he climbed to an observation point at the top of a broken pit-gantry in the industrial zone where the ill-fated Bat­tle of Loos had been fought two years earlier. He found his first sight of the trench world oddly different from his expectations:

I shall never forget the disappointment of my first view of the “front”–shell pocked ground, ruined houses, rusty barbed wire everywhere and a maze of trenches, and No Man’s Land– not a soul to be seen, and not a sound except a solitary “plop” of a sniper’s rifle.

At other times, however, no-man’s­ land could provide a fair simulation of hell on earth (or “hell let loose,” to quote one of the ordinary Tommy ‘s fa­vorite cliches). A British staff officer at­tached to an Australian division, Capt. A.M. McGrigor, saw it from a vantage point called Kemmel Hill during one of the series of actions that finally heaved Field Marshal Haig ‘s 1917 offensive up to that fearsome and infamous destina­tion, the ridge called Passchendaele:

I had the most extraordinary and wonderful panoramic scene of the whole battle from well to the north of Ypres to beyond Messines. One could see the bursts from all our guns and from many of the Bosche ‘s, and between the two the awful barrages that were being put down in ‘no man’s land’. It was a terrible and awe-inspiring sight and made one wonder how human beings could live in that inferno.

Human beings, of course, frequently did not live in such infernos. It also claimed countless victims between at­tacks. Not in the mass, perhaps, but by ones and twos daily–or rather nightly, for no-man’s-land during routine trench warfare was preeminently a nocturnal arena. In August 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, Capt. D.C. Stephenson described an episode typi­cal of many in a letter to his mother:

I had a nasty experience yesterday. Another gunner officer and I, with one of my signallers, were reconnoitring a very new trench the Germans have dug. We got a good long way out in No Man’s Land and suddenly got severely sniped at. The other officer got back safely, and my signaller and I started to crawl back. All of a sudden he got up for some rea­son and ran. He hadn’t gone two steps  before he spun round and fell, just in front of me. I plugged up his wound as well as I could, and then a very gallant  infantryman  came out,  on his  own, to help me dress him. This man raised his head for a moment while bandaging, and then fell, shot through  head and helmet, on top of me. I shouted to the other fellows to try and scratch a small trench out to us, and I got hold of a telephone wire, tied it on to my poor signaller’s legs, and they pulled him in. The poor infantryman who had come out to help was quite dead when I got back to him. I am sorry to say the signaller died on the way to the dressing station.

This was no-man’s-land at its most elemental and vicious, the sort of episode that made it one of the endur­ing concepts of this disturbed and vio­lent century. Indeed, the phrase has been wheeled out again in every war since, right down to the Falklands Conflict, the Gulf War, and the savage struggle over the corpse of Yugoslavia. Clearly, if it  didn’t already exist, it would have had to be invented.

So how did the phrase come into existence? Did it arise spon­taneously, a natural product of cir­cumstances? Or did some one person coin it, its appositeness being  such that it could not fail to catch on? If so, who was the inventor? Who held the smoking gun?

Many wars, of course, have produced zones of dead ground situated between opposing forces: They are the in­evitable consequence of trench war­fare, itself a variant of old-style siege warfare. There were trenches in Spain during the Peninsular War, in the Russo-Japanese War, in the Crimea–above all, in the American Civil War. One might think the obvious name for terrain into which no one would dream of stepping if he wished to remain whole in wind and limb would be–no-man’s-land. The more so since the phrase itself had been around, constantly acquiring new meanings, for a good many centuries.

In its ancient form of “nanesmaneslande” it is as old as the Domesday Book, and in England of the Middle Ages it was applied to all kinds of unowned or unwanted ground–generally waste or barren stretches between defined areas such as provinces or kingdoms. (There is a scatter of small areas bearing the name No Man’s Land or Nomansland around England today, some among them significantly sited on ancient regional boundaries.) In the traditional open-field system, it was a useful label for odd scraps of ground here and there, which also attracted the name of “Jack’s land,” or “anyone’s land.” Later it was the name of an area outside the north wall of the city of London that was used as a place of exe­cution. In the days of sail it was a sec­tion of deck assigned to the storing of blocks, ropes, tackles, and other equipment that might be required on the forecastle. Daniel Defoe used it in 1719 in the sequel to Robinson Crusoe, his so-titled Farther Adventures, as “a kind of border.” Thomas Hughes wrote in 1881 of “a small bit of no-man’s land in the woods.”

All examples so far given hail from Britain. A remarkable American use of the phrase occurs in a poem by the late-19th-century literary figure Thomas Bailey Aldrich, friend of Hawthorne, Longfellow, Lowell, and Whittier, and famous for his influential tenure of the editorial chair of the At­lantic Monthly. In his poem “Identity,” he wrote:

Somewhere–in desolate wind–swept space

In Twilight-land–in No-man’s land–­

Two hurrying Shapes met face to face,

And bade each other stand.

“And who are you?” cried one a-gape

Shuddering in the gloaming light.

“I know not,” said the second Shape,

“I only died last night!”

For the literary aficionado these lines might seem to resonate with omens of things to come–even read, almost, like a preview of Wilfred Owen’s superbly imagined encounter of fallen enemies, “Strange Meeting”–but it has to be ad­mitted that there is no hint that Aldrich’s ghosts are in uniform or are casualties of war.

However, first sightings of the phrase in a military context were also begin­ning to appear, though not  at  first in the form now generally employed. In a memoir published in 1899 called The Queen’s Service: Being the Experiences of a Private Soldier in the British In­fantry at Home and Abroad, its author, Horace Wyndham, wrote of the unoc­cupied zone between the British garri­son on Gibraltar and the town of La Linea beyond the Spanish  frontier: “This is the ‘Neutral Ground’–a sort of No Man’s Territory.”

Almost, but not quite. For the real breakthrough, the use of no-man’s-land in its now-classic and most widely understood form, we have to move on an­other nine years. According to that magisterial source of linguistic wisdom, the Oxford English Dictionary, 1908 was the first year in which the phrase was used in relation to the terrain be­tween opposing lines in war.

The context, however, seems an odd one, a short story called The Point of View, printed originally in the popular Edinburgh-based Blackwood‘s Maga­zine and later, in 1909, in a book called The Green Curve and Other Stories. The author was Ernest (later Major­ General Sir Ernest) Swinton, soldier and historian, who wrote not under his own name but under the alias of “Ole Luk-Oie.” (Apparently a Danish phrase meaning “Shut-Eye,” this was not the only bizarre pseudonym adopted by Swinton; he had earlier written a trea­tise on tactical lessons to be learned from the Boer War–cast as a fiction and titled The Defence of Duffer’s Drift-under the name of “Backsight Forethought.”)

The setting of The Point of View is a battle in some future conflict, in which the opposing sides are in close, destruc­tive proximity.

As soon as the light faded altogether from the sky, the yellow flames of different conflagra­tions glowed more crimson, and the great white eyes of the searchlights shone forth, their wandering beams lighting up now this, now that horror. Here and there in that wilderness of dead bodies–the dreadful “NMan’s-land” between the opposing lines [my italics]–deserted guns showed up singly or in groups, glistening in the full glare of  the beam or silhouetted in black against a ray passing behind. These guns were not aban­doned–the enemy’s fire had stripped them of life as a flame strips a feather. There they re­mained inert and neutral, anybody’s or no­body’s property, the jumbled mass of corpses around them showing what a magnetic in­ducement guns still offer for self-sacrifice, in spite of the fact that for artillery to lose guns is no longer necessarily considered the worse disgrace.

Yet surely this raises the question; could the trip wire that transformed this hoary old phrase into its present incarnation have been a mere short story, a by now-long-forgot­ten military yarn?

Then let me call as witness the late Charles Carrington, the author of a fa­mous early memoir of the Western Front entitled A Subaltern’s War (writ­ten under the pseudonym of Charles Edmonds), and, later, of the equally outstanding Soldier from the Wars Re­turning. In this second book he wrote revealingly about the cultural climate of the years before 1914.

Among the many books published in Edwar­dian days forecasting the character of a future war there was one which was much discussed by professional soldiers and which may be seen to have affected the art of generalship in the First World War. That book was The Green Curve

Carrington went on to name, specifi­cally, The Point of View as a subject of serious discussion when he was himself a young soldier. The reason for this was that the story raised a matter of consid­erable importance in the world of mili­tary theory. Since future wars were likely–or so Swinton believed–to be large-scale affairs dominated by ar­tillery and fought by massed armies in strongly defended positions, the role of the commander in the field clearly needed to be rethought. In particular it was vital that he should be clear as to where he should place himself while se­rious action was in progress. Was it to be on the battlefield itself for the glam­our and the glory, or away from the fighting so as to be in a position to take a view overall and make the necessary operational and tactical decisions? Cru­cial to the story, and doubtless the key to Swinton’s own viewpoint, is the quo­tation with which he headed it, from the writings of Baron Colmar Von der Goltz, Prussian soldier and military thinker in the late 1800s: “The more that clear-sightedness and intellectual influence upon the course of a battle is demanded by a general, the more he must keep himself out of serious dan­ger to life and limb.” Swinton’s solution in his story was that having launched his battle the best thing a commander could do was–go fishing!

This was no joke. In fact, through the writing of The Point of View, Swinton was focusing prophetically on an issue that would much concern generals­ and their critics-throughout the whole of this century, from Joffre and Haig through Rommel and Eisenhower to Schwarzkopf. His story explains why the last named based himself at Riyadh in the Gulf War as much as it explains why Haig lived for much of the First World War in the Chateau de Beaure­paire or Montgomery spent numerous crucial nights in the Second War asleep in his caravan. (No-man’s-land, it should be added, was strictly incidental to the theme of Swinton’s story–an evocative, memorable phrase added, it must be presumed, to give resonance to his austere vision of the shape of con­flicts to come.)

The thought therefore emerges that Ole Luk-Oie’s stories were far from being merely tales to amuse, yarns for boys of all ages whether in or out of uniform. Rather they were, in the bibli­cal sense, parables–serious theses pre­sented by a prescient thinker in a form that would attract his readers’ attention far more successfully than if he had written a military textbook.

In the matter of no-man’s-land, there seems no doubt that in The Green Curve–and in particular in The Point of View–we have the actual moment of its arrival on the military scene. A seed was planted, to await its appropriate time to burgeon and flower.

That time came in 1914 on the Western Front, and Swinton was on hand to record the flowering. Indeed, recording was precisely his job in that he had been sent to France by Secretary for War Lord Kitchener as an official reporter.

The French had forbidden the battle­ fields to all civilian correspondents. They were prepared, however, to accept some suitably qualified officer, and Winston Churchill–then first lord of the admiralty and hyperactive member of the British cabinet–nominated Swinton for the role on the basis of his admiration of The Defence of Duffers Drift. Swinton seized his opportunity and produced a stream of vivid and widely syndicated dispatches under the nom de guerre of “Eye-Witness present with General Headquarters.” The arrival, before the year was out, of static trench warfare gave Swinton the chance to transfer his evocative buzz phrase from fiction to fact. He seized it in his dispatch of December 21, in which he seems to have been describ­ing the sector in front of the French town of Armentieres. This, I believe, is the first published use of our keynote phrase in the war, which would turn it–literally–into a commonplace.

Of the forward area of the already well-developed trench system he wrote:

Seamed with dug-outs, burrows, trenches, and excavations of every kind, and fitted [sic] with craters , it is bounded on the front by a long discontinuous irregular line  fringed  with barbed wire and broken by saps wriggling still more to the front. This is the Ultima Thule. Be­yond, of width varying according to the nature of the fighting and of the ground, is neutral territory, the no-man’s-land between the hos­tile forces [my italics]. It is strewn with the dead of both sides, some lying, others caught and propped in the sagging wire, where they may have been for days, still others half buried in craters or destroyed parapets. When dark­ness falls, with infinite caution, an occasional patrol or solitary sniper may explore this grue­some area, crawling amongst the debris–pos­sibly of many fights–over the dead bodies and the inequalities of the ground till some point of vantage is gained whence the enemy’s position can be examined or a good shot obtained. On the other side of this zone of the unburied dead bristles a similar fringe of wire and a long suc­cession of low mounds and parapets–the posi­tion of the enemy. And woe betide the man who in daylight puts up his head carelessly to take a long glance at it.

Swinton was basically writing for civilians back home who would read his dispatch at the earliest with their breakfast on Boxing Day, December 26. But by this time at the front, here and there, soldiers had already caught the phrase and were beginning–just–to accept it as part of the culture. It is not hard to imagine officers who remem­bered Swinton’s stories calling up the term as they saw his vision of no­ man’s-land re-created before their eyes. Swinton himself was doubtless using it in conversation as well as print. One way or another it began the process of becoming the obvious, state-of-the-art phrase for a phenomenon of which everybody in front-line trenches was now very much aware.

The famous 1914 Christmas Truce, which began on December 24 and pro­duced a major fraternization on Christ­mas Day, offers an interesting snapshot of its progress. Thousands of men from both sides met  in  no-man’s-land, but the phrase is markedly absent from the contemporary descriptions, whether in letters, diaries, or newspapers that pub­licized the story with what now seems amazing frankness and approval. There is much reference to meeting “between the lines” or “in the space between the trenches.” Yet the phrase does occur. Writing in his diary on Christmas Day, Lt. Col. Lothian Nicholson, C.O. of the 2nd Battalion, East Lancashire Regi­ment, commented that he had suddenly become aware that afternoon of “a lot of our men hobnobbing with the Hun in No Man’s Land.” This diary was retyped after the war and could conceivably have been adapted but there is no doubt about the authenticity of the use by a young soldier of the London Rifle Brigade, Private Oswald Tilley. On De­cember 27, he wrote in a letter to his family that two days earlier he had been “out in ‘No Mans Land’ shaking hands and exchanging cigarettes, chocolate, and tobacco.”

By early 1915, the phrase was suffi­ciently established for the British tabloid press to offer it to its readers as a new state-of-the-art coinage from the war. On January 5 the London-based Daily Sketch printed two contrasting pictures, of British and German trench­es; the accompanying caption noted that: “The ground between them is known as No Man’s Land.” The phrase was employed increasingly throughout 1915, and soon it was even finding its way into official military documents. No-man’s-land had arrived, for good.

Should any question remain that this is the course of events, there is the modest confirmation of the alleged au­thor himself. In a footnote to his book of war reminiscences, Eyewitness, pub­lished in 1933, Swinton stated: “To the best of my knowledge this term, which became part of the English language during the war, was first used by myself in a story called The Point of View, to describe this neutral zone between two opposing trench-lines.”

No-man’s-land soon ceased to be merely a matter of phraseology; it be­ came the basis of an aggressive philoso­phy. It might well be a handy piece of jargon for journalists; it was also a mat­ter of high seriousness for generals, particularly British ones, who first in­formally, then officially, adopted the view that the German wire should be seen as the Allied front line. British troops were not to accept no-man’s­ land as such, rather they were to use every opportunities to get out into it and to make it their own. Hence Robert Graves, in Good-bye to All That, could write of the entry of his 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers into the line: “As soon as the enemy machine guns had been discouraged, our patrols would go out with bombs to claim possession of No Man’s Land.”

This notion had its enthusiastic sup­porters; it also had its bitter denigra­tors. For the first category there could be no better spokesman than the Irish brigadier general F.P. Crozier, most thrusting of commanders, whose view was that “training facilities outside the line are good, but the finest training ground of all is no man’s land and the German trenches.” For the ultimate anti-statement, we need look no further than Wilfred Owen in a letter to his mother dated January 19, 1917. He was writing from the zone that had just been devastated by the four-month Bat­tle of the Somme:

They want to call No Man’s Land “England” be­cause we keep supremacy there.

It is like the eternal place of gnashing of teeth; the Slough of Despond could be con­tained in one of its crater-holes; the fires of Sodom and Gomorrah could not light a candle to it–to find the way to Babylon the Fallen.

It is pock-marked like a body of foulest dis­ease and its odour is the breath of cancer. . .

No Man ‘s Land under snow is like the face of the moon chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness.

To call it “England”!

I would as soon call my House (!) Krupp Villa, or my child Chlorina-Phosgena.

British ambitions, however, did not stop at claiming no-man’s-land; beyond it lay the German trenches, which were to be harassed and harried whenever this was deemed appropriate. Hence, the trench raid–the purpose of which was to cause general mayhem, kill as many of the enemy as possible, and bring back prisoners for interrogation. Impromptu and random at first, the raids became increasingly sophisticated and ambitious as the war went on. They were often savage, high-risk affairs, with many casualties.

Nor were the Germans slothful in mounting similar efforts. It was in just such a raid in February 1917 that Lt. Colin Hunt, having first been wounded, was snatched across the “impossible gulf, “which had so powerfully im­pressed him five months earlier, to be­ come a prisoner of war until the end of hostilities.

As there were two views on claiming no-man’s-land, however, there were also two views on raids. A New Zealan­der, Sgt. James Williamson MM (Mili­tary Medal), denounced them in a post­ war memoir:

Raids every night in the dark, always casualties and perhaps considered a great success if they got back with one prisoner. All these raids were mostly just to find out what Division was opposite us. As if it mattered, no action was taken not matter what Division was opposite us.

It should be pointed out, however, that occasionally raids did have important results; it was a raid on French trenches in April 1917 that gave the Germans the battle plan of the disastrous offensive about to be launched on the Chemin des Dames.

No-man’s-land could have its lighter side. One Canadian private on the Western Front reported the activities of a resourceful cat that regularly carried out its independent patrols and knew the mealtimes on both sides. The period being late 1916, before the United States joined the war, the cat was christened “Wilson” on account of his scrupulous observance of neutrality! Earlier the same year, Capt. H.C. Meysey-Thompson of the Kings Royal Rifle Corps, introducing some officers of the Sherwood Foresters to trench routine in the “Plugstreet” sector in Belgium, decided one night after dinner on a “little entertainment” for his guests. It took the form of a foray into no-man’s­ land “to hang my old breeches on a tree as a signal of defiance of the Hun.” A particularly athletic Sherwood Forester shinned up a pollarded willow and “disposed them most artistically in its topmost branches, where they looked very well.”

Such jaunts, however, could some­times turn out badly, for no-man’s-land was rarely to be trifled with. In the spring of 1915 at Col de Grenay, in the sector soon to become the battlefield of Loos, a huge flowering cherry tree that had gained it­self the name of “Lone Tree” challenged the imagination of a young lieutenant of the Seaforth Highlanders. Out on night patrol he climbed it to attach a Union Jack to its upper branches. Caught in the light of a flare as he made his way down, he was promptly dispatched by enemy machine gun fire. His cadaver hung on the tree for several days. 

Yet no-man’s-land could be benign, being, despite its usually dour reputation, the scene of numerous standoffs and mutually agreed cease-fires–it was not only at Christmas 1914 that men walked tall between the trenches. Amazed at a similar, if smaller, effort at Christmas 1915 (by which time fraternization was a strictly prohibited rarity), a young Welsh officer, Wyn Griffith, commented: “This was the first time I had seen No Man’s Land, and it was now Every Man’s Land, or nearly so.” At other times there were truces to bring in the dead, or because trench condi­tions were so frightful that both sides called a halt to hostilities.

Men could assert important values, flourish even, beyond the wire. “I love being out of trenches and searching for adventure in No Man’s Land,” Lt. Ken­neth Macardle of the 17th Manchester Regiment wrote in his diary in May 1916, adding that he was honored in his battal­ion for his special skills: “I live in HQ in great luxury and sometimes when I am out on a fighting patrol, the Colonel sits up for me.” In 1917 on the Salonika Front (by which time the phrase had plainly been exported to other theaters), Capt. T.M. Sibly of the Gloucestershire Regiment could write in a letter to his family: “No Man’s Land provides the one touch of romance in trench warfare.” De­scribing a patrol in January of that year, Sibly commented that “as long as one was not discovered, the expedition was rather like a picnic…but of course it was a somewhat exciting picnic.”

Nor was no-man’s-land always a place of grim desolation. When the fighting moved elsewhere, it could revert to na­ture with astonishing speed, even ac­quire its own surreal magic. This is how the war artist William Orpen saw the carnage-ground of the Somme after the lines had moved on, in 1917:

 I had left it mud, nothing but water, shell­ holes and mud-the most gloomy, dreary abomination of desolation the mind could imagine; and now, in the summer of 1917, no words could express the beauty of it. The dreary, dismal mud was baked white and pure­ dazzling white. White daisies, red poppies, and a blue flower, great masses of them, stretched for miles and miles. The sky a pale dark blue, and the whole air, up to a height of about forty feet, thick with white butterflies: your clothes were  covered with butterflies….Everything shimmered in the heat. Clothes, guns, all that had been left in confusion when the war passed on, had now been baked by the sun into one wonderful combination of colour–white, pale grey, and pale gold.

What did other countries make of this area of dispute between the lines?

For the Germans to begin with it was Vorfeld–the space in front, but later they adopted the term Niemandsland. Similarly the French seem initially to have used the phrase la terre neutre and then switched to, or extended their vocabulary to include, le nomansland. That these are almost certainly straight lifts from the English version tends, surely, to support a British origin. The Russians, by contrast, seem to have kept their own counsel; their dictionar­ies simply refer to “the space between enemy trenches.”

And what of the Doughboys when they went into the line in 1918? Ever rich in producing new and resonant phraseology, did they simply pick up the accepted coinage or did Uncle Sam’s sol­diers invent their own vivid term of reference? No-man’s­ land, it is good to report, ap­pears to have been safe in their hands, judging by the following remarkable description from the reminiscences of a young brigade commander who was to win a world-fa­mous name in the Second World War and beyond, Douglas MacArthur. Sens­ing at one point that the Germans were retiring he determined to see for himself and with the help of guides he went out to explore “what had been No Man’s Land.” He wrote in his Reminiscences:

I will never forget that trip. The dead were so thick in spots we tumbled over them. There must have been at least 2,000 of those sprawled bodies. I identified the insignia of six of the best German divisions. The stench was suffocating. Not a tree was standing. The moans and cries of the wounded sounded everywhere. Sniper bullets sung like the buzzing of a hive of angry bees….I counted almost a hundred disabled guns of various sizes and several times that number of abandoned machine guns.

It is Swin­ton’s vision of exactly 10 years before fully real­ized, and more so. Historically, the no­ man’s-land of the West­ern Front may now be with the ages, but the concept is still acquiring ever new shades of meaning, although it will, surely, always carry with it the distinc­tive aura of the 1914-18 War. It is an analogy that comes to mind in any situ­ation–personal, moral, spiritual, cul­tural, political, industrial, sporting­ where there are dilemmas, uncertain­ ties, standoffs, areas of doubt or prevari­cation. In this respect it is one of a number of products of that four-year deadlock that have taken up more or less permanent residence in our lan­guage. We have such phrases as “en­trenched positions,” “over the top,” “shell shock,” “war of attrition,” “killed in action,” “walking wounded,” “keeping your head down.”

But I would nominate no-man’s-land for pride of place. Older than the oth­ers, it will surely outlast them, whether as a territory on a map, or as a territory of the mind. I somehow doubt whether such recently offered bias-free substitu­tions as “limbo,” “waste-land,” or “nowheresville” will seriously challenge a phrase with such a long and deep his­tory. Until men and nations cease to confront each other in close encounters of a martial kind, its future is assured. MHQ

MALCOLM BROWN is a freelance historian at the Imperial War Museum in London. His IWM Book of the Somme will be published this sum­mer by Sidgwick & Jackson.


This article originally appeared in the Summer 1996 issue (Vol. 8, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: No-Man’s-Land

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