Origins of the Term

The English term "No Man's Land" has existed since the medieval era to denote disputed territory. In the First World War it was re-coined to describe the terrain between opposing forces, particularly where fronts were static, gaining common currency from late 1914. The term remains current, and is used more broadly to indicate areas of ambiguity and lack of ownership as well as military situations.

World War One

Sometimes generals of the First World War influenced, to advantage, where this dangerous strip of ground lay by positioning forces on ridges, or behind obstacles, overlooking good fields of fire. Often, however, "No Man's Land" arose in a particular location by chance, as offensives ended, or armies encountered each other and entrenched wherever they could. "No Man's Land" therefore varied dramatically according to geography and happenstance. Its boundaries might be clearly defined by belts of wire and trench lines or natural features, or unclear and fluid. On the Yser the distance between Belgians and Germans was at times just a few yards of wet mud. On Vimy Ridge and at the Butte de Vauquois Canadians and French occupied craters on hills adjoining those of the Germans. Conversely, where land was deliberately flooded, or armies confronted each other across wide rivers, or on quieter sectors of the Eastern Front, "No Man's Land" could be miles wide.

Raids and patrols into "No Man's Land" between the protagonists of the Western Front took place as early as late 1914, and were encouraged as a method of gleaning intelligence and striking small demoralising blows. However, the threatening emptiness of this mysterious strip of land was notorious, being much enhanced by the difficulty and danger of retrieving the wounded or dead. In part therefore "No Man's Land" was a function of the lethality of modern weapons at short range – so linking the concepts of "No Man's Land" and the new experience of the "empty battlefield."

Stephen Bull, Lancashire County Museums

Section Editor: Emmanuelle Cronier