The Western Front is a place of horror, with men at continuous risk of sudden death or serious injury from shellfire or enemy attack. The trenches and the no man’s land between them are littered with unburied corpses. The soldiers live in conditions of appalling squalor, continuously threatened by filth, disease and vermin.
In such a terrible place it is hard to believe that the soldiers would create new horrors for themselves, yet this is what they do. A legend begins to spread by word of mouth among the infantrymen, a legend of the “wild deserters” who live in no man’s land. These are deserters from all sides who have left their respective armies and who now live in shell-holes and dug-outs between the lines. By day they shelter underground, but by night they come out to look for food and loot. Some say they raid the trenches for rations, but others report that the wild deserters look for corpses of those who have fallen in no man’s land, for the wild deserters sate their hunger on human flesh.
The frontline soldiers clearly regard this imagined community of deserters with fear and loathing. This says much about their own continued commitment to the war, despite the horrors they are enduring.
No Man’s Land (World War 1 and the shaping of the 20th century)
No Man’s Land, by Lucien Jonas (Smithsonian Magazine)