no man’s land: an essay on world war one

Could I, I thought, be the last coward on earth? How terrifying!…..All alone with two million stark raving heroic madmen, armed to the eyeballs? With or without helmets, without horses, on motorcycles, bellowing in cars, screeching, shooting, plotting, flying, kneeling, digging, taking cover, bounding over trails, root-toot-tooting, shut up on earth as if it were a loony bin, ready to demolish everything on it, Germany, France, everything that breathes, destroy, destroy, madder than mad dogs, worshipping their madness (which dogs don’t), a hundred, a thousand times madder than mad dogs, and a lot more vicious! A pretty mess we were in! No doubt this crusade I’d let myself in for was the apocalypse.”

Louis Ferdinand Celine from “Journey To The End Of The Night”


by mike morgan


Called the “War To End All Wars” and “the Great War”, World War One ranks right up there as the nadir of western civilization. Twenty one years after its conclusion, the so-called repositories of all that humankind was supposed to be proud of embarked once again on a rampage that this time included a final solution and murdered countless more people.

But there was something particularly heinous about World War One. Kings, Queens, Emperors, Kaisers, Czars, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Chancellors and Pashas all willingly sent their working class populations to kill or be killed on the battlefields of Western and Eastern Europe and the Near and Middle East. God forbid that the Kaiser might duke it out mano mano with the King of England. This would have saved millions of lives and the world would at least have been rid of one of these pests. Instead, these rulers and their generals rubbed out entire generations of the young sons from their respective societies. It was all quite staggering in its monstrosity.

Perhaps the most barbaric aspect of this war was the eagerness with which those in charge sacrificed thousands of men per hour for the gain or loss of a few yards. Talk about paying a high price for real estate and space. Full frontal infantry charges rarely succeeded against the dominance of machine gun and artillery positions, but this losing strategy prevailed on all sides. The battle of Verdun was commonly referrred to by German troops as “Der Salgterhaus” (the Slaughter House).

The official minimum estimates of war dead of the principal belligerent parties, namely Germany, Russia, France and Britain and it’s allies and Turkey (this excludes civilians of which there were over 1 million Armenian folks killed, at least 82,000 Serbian citizens and 62,000 American troops that died of influenza) read something like this. The Central Powers (the losers in the war) lost approximately 3,500,000 soldiers on the battlefield. The Allied Powers (the winners) lost more or less 5,100,000 men. On average, this was more than 5,600 soldiers killed on each day of the war. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British Army alone lost 20,000 men.

When they went over the top, British soldiers carried about sixty pounds of equipment. With this kind of weight, which included a rifle, ammunition, grenades, rations, a steel helmet, two gas masks, goggles, a pick or a shovel, four empty sandbags, two full water bottles and a mess tin, it was extremely difficult to even climb out of the trenches and almost impossible to move any quicker than a clumsy walk. The idea of providing the enemy with slow, lumbering targets of thousands of men in muddy conditions is consistent with all of the other humanitarian considerations that seemed to permeate the consciousness of the British High Command.

And then there was the introduction of new, untested weapons of mass destruction such as poisonous gas. My grandfather died as a result of a gas attack. He was a gunnery officer in a Welsh artillery unit. Before the war, he managed a small hotel in Cardiff, Wales. I guess the powers that be must have thought that hotel managers were of solid stock because they made him a captain. The difference between a captain and a regular schmuck in that unit was that a captain got to ride a horse. My grandfather and his horse were gassed in France in 1916. He had on a gas mask, but it didn’t work. It took him eight years to die a slow and painful death. The horse died immediately.

The gas was British. It was meant to kill Germans, but the wind changed direction and instead it wiped out the Welsh gunners, almost all of them. He never got to run his hotel again. He spent the next 8 years rotting in British army hospitals, his lungs devastated by the gas. They gave him some kind of medal.

To bolster sagging morale in the French army, the generals decided toshoot some of their own soldiers. The French officers were ardent fans of the decimation technique of morale boosting i.e. kill every tenth man to set a good example. This dirty little war was carried out within the framework of the nasty big war. If the big one didn’t get you, there was a good chance that the little one would. The French Military Police spent more time policing and executing their own troops than they did fighting Germans.

By 1917, incidents of self inflicted wounds to avoid participation in this carnage was of great concern to the French. The most popular method was to shoot oneself in the hand, or encourage the other side to do so. This could be quite easily accomplished by dangling one’s hand with a lighted cigarette over the top of the trench, thus inviting enemy snipers to take a pot shot. The French really got their knickers in a knot on this one, so they decided to court martial any soldiers who were shot in the hand. It didn’t matter whether one was wounded in this particular body part legitimately or not. To impress this policy on the rank and file, the “guilty” parties were, on certain occasions, handcuffed and tossed into no-man’s land, where they would become target practice for German marksmen. This would sometimes be done in areas of the front where the fighting had lulled in order to rekindle battle action. This, of course, was extremely popular amongst the enlisted men. But the prize of all prizes, the perhaps most inhumane of all strategies was dreamed up by the British Army.

Conditions at the frontline trenches were ghastly. So horrific in fact,that troops were refusing to go back on the line or if they did go, they might be willing only to defend their position, not to advance it. By 1917,the British Army was suffering from a serious hearts and minds problem. So what did these sadistic dunces come up with? To induce soldiers to see the trenches as the lesser of two evils, they created this hideous behind-the-lines training camp in Northern France. Troops in the rear would have to spend weeks on end at this camp. It was called the Bullring. It was run by British Nazis in training.

The Bullring was notorious. In the mid-seventies, a British Army veteran wrote a book about the place. He told of a mutiny that occurred there. This is his story.

The strategy in this camp was similar to that of basic training. Thus, seasoned veterans who had been lucky enough to survive the battlefield were humiliated by goon drill sergeants. The food made prison meals seem like a delicacy. Troops did everything at double time. All of the ridiculous aspects of military discipline were now important. Nonsense like parade drill and inspections were reinstituted. Violators were punished severely. The Romans couldn’t have done a better job.

The soldiers opposed this lunacy. A group decided to mount a revolt. They had the support of most of the inmates in the Bullring. The plan was to kill the instructors during bayonet training. Instead of stabbing the straw dummies, they bayonetted the sergeants. It worked. The troops had control of the camp.

The rebels issued an ultimatum. They demanded decent conditions, conditions which were conducive to recovery from the horror of the trenches. They wanted to be treated like human beings, with the respect accorded to people who were being ordered to die for their country. The British High Command couldn’t take this. Who were these upstarts? But they also wanted to contain it. So they sent a whole lot of brass down there with the following instructions. There would be very little leniency. All of the rebels would be court-martialed taking their war record into consideration. Non-rebels would be punished in a different way. They were to be sent back to the front to die there.

The leaders of the uprising found this to be unacceptable. They rounded up all of the stuffy brass, put them in a railway bogey-wagon and pushed the wagon into the canal, drowning all of the officers like the rats they were. So the High Command sent a large, well-armed expeditionary force to smash the rebellion. Men on both sides were killed. British soldiers shot British soldiers. The other side of the war must have liked this quite a lot. Those that weren’t shot were immediately shipped to a very bloody battle site, where their chances of survival for more than twenty four hours were virtually non-existent. The intensity of the hatred was such that when the troops were ordered to go over the trenches, they shot their own officers in the back.

The man who told this story was a veteran of that uprising, one of the very few to survive. I saw him on television. He was an old, grey haired codger, sitting in a wheelchair with all of his medals on his chest. He wanted to tell his tale before he died. Up until that point, the government had managed to successfully censor the whole event, as if it didn’t happen. Rebellions were the kind of things that Huns or Russians did. Not the swagger stick, Bwana-Bwana, more tea effendi, the natives are restless, ream your arse with steel wool British Army. It just wasn’t cricket chaps. But this was sixty years later and nobody cared anymore. So it didn’t receive the kind of attention that this writer thought it deserved. Who was worried about this old geezer? He was going to die soon anyway.

“The colonel, I could see, was a monster. Now I knew it for sure, he was worse than a dog, he couldn’t conceive of his own death. I realized at the same time that there must be plenty of brave men like him in our army, and just as many no doubt in the army facing us. How many, I wondered. One or two million, say several millions in all? The thought turned my fear to panic. With such people this infernal lunacy could go on forever. Why would they stop? Never had the world seem so implacably doomed.”

Louis Ferdinand Celine from “Journey To The End Of The Night


This story originally appeared in Lurch Magazine



Originally published:
Issue Eleven
July 2001


A Brooklynite by way of Wales and South Africa, Mike Morgan is the founder of Burrow Magazine and serves as one of its Senior Editors and Contributors. In addition to these duties, he has been and continues to be at the heart of a thriving literary, art and music scene and is a regular at several neighborhood bars, where he can be found discussing global and local affairs, rock and roll, various New York sports teams, and whatever books he happens to be reading at the time. More from Mike Morgan can be found in the Vault of Smoke.

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