I’ve been researching World War I since early 2013 and when you ask people about the war, they invariably mention the trenches or possibly “no-man’s land.”
The first trenches were dug hastily and shallow, to enable soldiers to avoid splintering machine gun bullets.
The trenches quickly, however, went deeper and became a symbol of stagnation, horror and stalemate.
All of which were correct.
No man’s land was the area between the trenches.
Wikipedia describes No man’s land like this:
It is 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.
Anyone who’s seen the movie War Horse, knows what no man’s land is like.
But early in World War I, civilians had no idea had awful the situation quickly became as the sides dug their trenches–ultimately stretching from the English Channel to neutral Switzerland, more than 400 miles.
Army censors tried to shield the public from the realities of life in the trenches and most people at the time only learned of their horror when soldiers returned from the front with ghastly stories, most of which included other horrors such as mustard gas, body pieces caught on barbed wire in no man’s land, and men who drowned in mud holes mere feet from safety.
How could these things be reported in the newspapers? England needed volunteers.
In my quest for primary source materials, I found in the writings of the only female war correspondent of note, a description of her visit to the trenches and no man’s land, early in the war.
Mary Roberts Rinehart had traveled to Belgium under the wing of the Belgium Red Cross. A former nurse, she toured hospitals and casualty stations, observing their physical, material and personnel limitations.
She was horrified.
But Rinehart also was a journalist writing for The Saturday Evening Post and she itched to see the front lines. Somehow, she found Belgian army officers willing to take her.
To the chagrin of male war correspondents desperately trying to get to the front to report on the same story, Rinehart was the first to see and report on no man’s land.
What she went through was harrowing. She described it in her 1915 book Kings, Queens and Pawns: An American Woman at the Front, published after she returned from traveling through Belgium.
“No man’s land is of fixed length but of varying width. There are places where it is very narrow, so narrow that it is possible to throw across a hand grenade or a box of cigarettes, depending on the nearness of an officer whose business is war. Again it is wide, that friendly relations are impossible, and sniping becomes a pleasure as well as an art.”
Rinehart wore a fur coat on the cold January and February nights when she visited over a three-week period. She wore a waterproof cloak on top which often got caught on barbed wire, frequently terrifying her as she waited in no man’s land to be disentangled.
Her article was allowed to be published, but she could not provide details as to where she was, who she was with or anything that might give the German enemy an advantage. One night, she advanced across an open area under a too-bright moon, to an outpost.
“That night I could look across to the German line . . . In each direction as far as one could see, lay a gleaming lagoon [of salt water the Belgians flooded their land]. The moon made a silver path across it and here and there were broken and twisted winter trees.
“It is beautiful,” said Captain F. . . “But it is full of the dead. They are taken out whenever it is possible; but it is not often possible. The water is full of barbed wire.”
They walked to an outpost one night. Rinehart’s escort explained a tacit system had been agreed upon–the two sides would not shoot each other’s sentries. This enabled movement in the dark. Still, the trip on foot was harrowing.
“It was necessary to work through a barbed-wire barricade, twisting and turning through its mazes. The moonlight helped. It was at once a comfort and an anxiety, for it seemed to me that my khaki-colored suit gleamed in it . . . my cape ballooned like a sail in the wind. I felt at least double my ordinary size, and that even a sniper with a squint could hardly miss me. And, by way of comfort, I had one last instruction before I started: “If a fusee [flare] goes up, stand perfectly still. If you move they will fire.”
They were headed to a church tower, two sides of which had already been knocked down by artillery, where a Capuchin monk turned Belgian soldier stood watch in the bell tower.
“600 feet beyond this tower were the German trenches. The little island [surrounded by the flood] was hardly 100 feet at its greatest dimension.
I wish I could make those people who think war is good for a country see that Belgian outpost. . . . Perhaps we were under suspicion; suddenly the fusees, which had ceased for a time, began again, and with their white light added to that of the moon the desolate picture of that tiny island. . . . There was the beauty of the moonlit waters, the tragedy of the destroyed houses and church, and the horror of the unburied bodies.”
Of the monk, she wrote
“He has held his position alone and unrelieved. He has a telephone, and he gains access to his position in the tower by means of a rope ladder which he draw up after him. Furious fighting has taken place again and again around the base of the tower. The German shells assail it constantly.”
The monk would climb down after a battle and bury the remains of both armies in the small graveyard still left.
The high command had not intended Rinehart to visit no man’s land. Click to Tweet
Rinehart, however, returned to America thankful for what she had seen and reported of no man’s land.
The censors couldn’t hide everything any more.
Mary Rinehart was an eye witness no man’s land. Click to Tweet