The battlegrounds of World War I were hellholes full of blood, explosions, death, and the anguished cries of the dying. There is no doubt that here on display was humanity at its worst and most feral; a miasma of conflict, misery, and evil. From this cloud of soul staining hatred and killing also sprung a variety of tales and mysteries which have become almost lost to time, with no real way of verifying their veracity, and which have gone on to attain almost legendary status. One such story comes to us from the violence soaked badlands of WWI’s no man’s land. Here, among the harrowing trench warfare, death, and destruction come tales of a mysterious heathen tribe of half-crazed, cannibalistic lunatics, which hid within the charred ground and roamed the war torn landscape in order to loot and feed on the dead. The no man’s land of WWI was already full of horror and danger as it was, making accounts of this sinister, animalistic society of monstrous looters and killers inhabiting the blood soaked wasteland only increase the terror of this forsaken, accursed hell of human history.
A no man’s land is an area which is disputed by two sides of a conflict, but which both sides are afraid to venture into out of uncertainty and fear of what will befall them if they do. In World War I, it became a term inextricably linked to bloody trench fighting erupting on battlefields throughout Europe, denoting the tracts of smoke filled, war scarred land located in the limbo between the trench systems of either side. There can be no doubt that the no man’s land of World War I was a place of nightmarish horrors and carnage. Wreathed in smoke and the stench of decay, crisscrossed by barbed wire on the ground and bullets zipping by overhead, this was a dark place of madness riddled with explosions, land mines, the charred pits of shell holes, spent artillery shells, and the rotting corpses of men who had fallen in battle. The sounds of no man’s land were the soundtrack of Hell itself; thunderous explosions, gunfire, and the haunting wails of the dying, who sometimes took days to succumb to their wounds without any help in sight. The only signs of life out in the hellish wasteland of the no man’s land was typically stretcher bearers risking their lives to retrieve the mangled bodies of the dead. The poet Wilfred Owen once said that the no man’s land was “like the face of the moon, chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness.”
Out of this madness, death, and despair came a curious and persistent tale among the brave men who fought here. It was said that out in the battle worn, desolate wastes of the no man’s land there existed packs of feral wild men made up of deserters from every army fighting here, including the German, British, Canadian, French, Italian, Austrian and Australian, with Americans curiously absent, who had banded together to form a sort of primitive tribe which lived deep down in the blood stained, war ravaged ground under abandoned trenches and dugouts. Their numbers were said to range anywhere from a battalion sized group to regimental sizes. These wild men were said to be ghostly pale, bearded, and usually badly scarred by battle, dressed in tattered, filthy uniforms or even naked. These ragged bands of ghoulish deserters were said to have reverted to an almost animalistic state, and crept forth from their subterranean domain at night in order to scavenge weapons, food, shoes, and clothing off of the bodies of the dead and dying. They were also said to sometimes feast upon the flesh of fallen soldiers, or even those who were not quite dead yet, like a pack of ravenous wild animals. During these nighttime raids, it was said that the wild men of the no man’s land would often fight with each other over their loot and the meat of the dead and dying, and that sometimes the gunfire or shouting heard wafting over the no man’s land at night was not the enemy, but rather these feral deserters ferociously battling amongst themselves.
Soldiers often swapped tales about how they had come across these beastly crazed renegades in the black of night, or seen them furtively slinking about in the murky darkness among the barbed wire, corpses, and craters, and there are many written accounts of the alleged wild men of no man’s land. One of the earliest accounts comes from 1920, from the memoir of a British cavalryman named Ardern Arthur Hulme Beaman. He claimed that in 1918 while on watch at the edge of a no man’s land in the battle infused Somme in northern France, he had witnessed a group of two dozen German prisoners suddenly vanish out in the wasteland, seeming to be sucked into the ground itself. When he approached his superiors about this and suggested they go retrieve the prisoners, the officers told him it was too dangerous because of the vicious wild men roaming about out there, suggesting that even the commanders were aware of the existence of these ghastly primitives. In 1948, an army captain named Sir Osbert Sitwell wrote an autobiography titled Laughter in the Next Room, in which he described the wild tribe of deserters thus:
For four long years . . . the sole internationalism—if it existed—had been that of deserters from all the warring nations, French, Italian, German, Austrian, Australian, English, Canadian. Outlawed, these men lived—at least, they lived—in caves and grottoes under certain parts of the front line. Cowardly but desperate as the lazzaroni of the old Kingdom of Naples, or the bands of beggars and coney catchers of Tudor times, recognizing no right, and no rules save of their own making, they would issue forth, it was said, from their secret lairs, after each of the interminable checkmate battles, to rob the dying of their few possessions—treasures such as boots or iron rations—and leave them dead.
Accounts such as this have popped up in various memoirs and journals of the war, as well as in novels from the period. In the 1930 novel Behind the Lines, author and former World War I battalion commander Walter Frederick Morris described their living areas as “indescribably dirty and had a musty, earthy, garlicky smell, like the lair of a wild beast.” In the 1985 novel No Man’s Land, by Reginald Hill, the ghoulish, zombie-like deserters were described thus:
They were a wild-looking gang, in dirty ragged clothing and with unkempt hair and unshaven faces. They were also very well armed. These deserters come swarming out of nowhere, out of the bowels of the earth, that’s how it looked. They was scruffy, dead scruffy. Sort of rugged and wild-looking, more like a bunch of pirates than anything. There was one big brute, nigh on seven foot tall he looked.
These roving gangs of no man’s land have not always been depicted as marauding packs of crazed, flesh eating maniacs, more animal than man. As recently as 2006, the International Herald Tribune ran an intriguing piece explaining that these forlorn outcasts had made a peaceful home in the caverns away from the fighting and mostly focused on caring for and supporting each other, regardless of nationality. In this version of events, rather than bloodthirsty bandits, these deserters were more like a sanctuary for those seeking to escape the chaotic hell of war.
In another autobiography written by Army Captain Sir Osbert Sitwell, it is claimed that at the end of the war, rather than risk allowing these deranged denizens of no man’s land to spread out and sow terror around the countryside, the whole area where they were said to lurk was thoroughly gassed in order to exterminate them. It is a haunting notion to think that a group of deserters who could not completely escape the mayhem would be trapped in this desolate realm of despair and forced to eke out a living pillaging the dead and cannibalistically eating their flesh, only to meet a ghastly execution at the hands of their former cohorts. It seems like something out of a horror movie, and indeed it has been oft suggested that these tales are a mere urban legend born from the horrors and grotesqueries of war. In the 1975 book The Great War and Modern Memory, author, historian, and WWII veteran Paul Fussel wrote much on these stories, calling them:
The finest legend of the war, the most brilliant in literary invention and execution as well as the richest in symbolic suggestion.
To be sure the whole thing smacks of urban legend, but were these tales all merely legends and folklore passed around men living through the horror of war? Are these simply the musings of terrified, battle weary minds, or is there perhaps anything more to it? It is unlikely we will ever know for sure. One thing that is certain is that the chaos and violence of war breeds more than just suffering, strife, pain and anguish. It stirs something from the most primitive portions of our brain, pokes at some sleeping beast of hatred, violence and fear that rarely rears its head in more peaceful times. Perhaps it is from this cauldron of the buried, repressed evils of human nature, or at least our efforts to hold it back, that such tales are spawned. It seems that even if these roving packs of man-eating wild men did not exist in real life, then they at least exist within our soul, marauding about, waiting for their chance to claw to the surface.