No man's land

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An aerial reconnaissance photograph of the opposing trenches and no man's land between Loos and Hulluch in Artois, France. German trenches are at the right and bottom, and British trenches are at the top left. The vertical line to the left of centre indicates the course of a pre-war road or track.
An aerial photograph showing opposing trenches and no man's land between Loos and Hulluch during World War I

No man's land is waste or unowned land or an uninhabited or desolate area that may be under dispute between parties who leave it unoccupied out of fear or uncertainty. The term was originally used to define a contested territory or a dumping ground for refuse between fiefdoms.[1] It is commonly associated with World War I to describe the area of land between two enemy trench systems, not controlled by either side.[2][3] The term is also used metaphorically, to refer to an ambiguous, anomalous, or indefinite area, regarding an application, situation,[4] or jurisdiction.[5][6] It has sometimes been used to name a specific place.[3]


According to Alasdair Pinkerton, an expert in human geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, the term is first mentioned in Domesday Book (1086), to describe parcels of land that were just beyond the London city walls.[7][8] The Oxford English Dictionary contains a reference to the term dating back to 1320, spelled nonesmanneslond, to describe a territory that was disputed or involved in a legal disagreement.[3][1][9] The same term was later used as the name for the piece of land outside the north wall of London that was assigned as the place of execution.[9] The term is also applied in nautical use to a space amidships, originally between the forecastle and the booms in a square-rigged vessel where various ropes, tackle, block, and other supplies were stored.[3][10] In the United Kingdom, several places called No Man's Land denoted "extra-parochial spaces that were beyond the rule of the church, beyond the rule of different fiefdoms that were handed out by the king … ribbons of land between these different regimes of power".[7]


World War I[edit]

A stretch of no man's land at Flanders Fields, Belgium, 1919

The British Army did not widely employ the term when the Regular Army arrived in France in August 1914, soon after the outbreak of World War I.[11] The terms used most frequently at the start of the war to describe the area between the trench lines included 'between the trenches' or 'between the lines'.[11] The term 'no man's land' was first used in a military context by soldier and historian Ernest Swinton in his short story "The Point of View".[1] Swinton used the term in war correspondence on the Western Front, with specific mention of the terms concerning to the Race to the Sea in late 1914.[11] The Anglo-German Christmas truce of 1914 brought the term into common use, and thereafter it appeared frequently in official communiqués, newspaper reports, and personnel correspondences of the members of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).[11]

Dead Canadian soldiers lying in no man's land on the Somme battlefield, 1918

In World War I, no man's land often ranged from several hundred yards to less than 10 metres (33 ft), in some cases.[12] Heavily defended by machine guns, mortars, artillery, and riflemen on both sides, it was often extensively cratered by exploded shells, riddled with barbed wire, and littered with rudimentary land mines; as well as the corpses and wounded soldiers who were unable to make it through the hailstorm of projectiles, explosions, and flames. The area was sometimes contaminated by chemical weapons. It was open to fire from the opposing trenches and hard going generally slowed any attempted advance.[13]

Not only were soldiers forced to cross no man's land when advancing, and as the case might be when retreating, but after an attack the stretcher-bearers had to enter it to bring in the wounded.[14] No man's land remained a regular feature of the battlefield until near the end of World War I when mechanised weapons (i.e., tanks and airplanes) made entrenched lines less of an obstacle.

Effects from World War I no man's lands persist today, for example at Verdun in France, where the Zone Rouge (Red Zone) contains unexploded ordnance, and is poisoned beyond habitation by arsenic, chlorine, and phosgene gas. The zone is sealed off completely and still deemed too dangerous for civilians to return: "The area is still considered to be very poisoned, so the French government planted an enormous forest of black pines, like a living sarcophagus", comments Alasdair Pinkerton, a researcher at Royal Holloway University of London, who compared the zone to the nuclear disaster site at Chernobyl, similarly encased in a "concrete sarcophagus".[7]

Cold War[edit]

During the Cold War, one example of "no man's land" was the territory close to the Iron Curtain. Officially the territory belonged to the Eastern Bloc countries, but over the entire Iron Curtain, there were several wide tracts of uninhabited land, several hundred meters (yards) in width, containing watch towers, minefields, unexploded bombs, and other such debris. Would-be escapees from Eastern Bloc countries who successfully scaled the border fortifications could still be apprehended or shot by border guards in the zone.

The U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba is separated from Cuba proper by an area called the Cactus Curtain. In late 1961, the Cuban Army had its troops plant a 13-kilometre (8.1 mi) barrier of Opuntia cactus along the northeastern section of the 28-kilometre (17 mi) fence surrounding the base to prevent economic migrants fleeing from Cuba from resettling in the United States.[15] This was dubbed the "Cactus Curtain", an allusion to Europe's Iron Curtain[16] and the Bamboo Curtain in East Asia. U.S. and Cuban troops placed some 55,000 land mines across the no man's land, creating the second-largest minefield in the world, and the largest in the Americas. On 16 May 1996, President Bill Clinton ordered the U.S. land mines to be removed and replaced with motion and sound sensors to detect intruders. The Cuban government has not removed the corresponding minefield on its side of the border.[citation needed]


Largely empty land near the Old City wall, Dormition Abbey (on the far right), and Tower of David (centre-left).
No man's land in Jerusalem, between Israel and Jordan, circa 1964

From 1949 to 1967 the border between Israel and Jordan contained a few small regions that were considered "no man's land" because neither side had jurisdiction. The 1949 Armistice Agreements between Israel and Jordan were signed in Rhodes with the help of UN mediation on 3 April 1949.[17] Armistice lines were determined in November 1948. Between the lines territory was left that was defined as no man's land.[18][19] Such areas existed in Jerusalem in the area between the western and southern parts of the Walls of Jerusalem and Musrara.[20] A strip of land north and south of Latrun was also known as "no man's land" because it was not controlled by either Israel or Jordan between 1948 and 1967.[21]

The no man's land regions were eliminated when Israel conquered them during the Six day war.

Russian invasion of Ukraine[edit]

No man's land on the outskirts of Bakhmut

The battle of Bakhmut, during the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine has been labeled as one of the bloodiest battles of the 21st century, with the battlefield being described as a "meat grinder" and a "vortex" for both the Ukrainian and Russian militaries.[22][23]

With extremely high casualties, costly ground assaults with very little ground gained, and shell-pocked landscapes, volunteers, media, and government officials alike compared fighting in Bakhmut to battlefield conditions on the western front of World War I.[24][25]

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Andrew Milburn, the leader of a foreign volunteer group in Ukraine called the Mozart Group and an eyewitness to the battle, compared conditions in the Bakhmut countryside to Passchendaele and the city itself to Dresden in World War II.[26] On 11 January 2023, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak described the fighting ongoing at Bakhmut and Soledar as the bloodiest since the start of the invasion.[27] Comparisons have also been made between Bakhmut and the battles of Verdun, the Somme and Stalingrad by both Western and Ukrainian officials.[28][29][30]

Current no man's land[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Persico p. 68
  2. ^ Coleman p. 268
  3. ^ a b c d "no man's land". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. 256795. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  4. ^ "No-man's land definition and meaning".
  5. ^ "Definition of No-Man's-Land".
  6. ^ "Portraits of No-Man's-Land".
  7. ^ a b c "Adventures in No Man's Land". BBC News. Archived from the original on 30 September 2015. Retrieved 30 September 2015.
  8. ^ "Nomansland". Open Domesday. Retrieved 15 November 2021.
  9. ^ a b Levenback p. 95
  10. ^ Hendrickson, Robert Facts on File Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (2008)
  11. ^ a b c d Payne, David (8 July 2008). "No Man's Land". Western Front Association. Archived from the original on 29 October 2009. Retrieved 20 November 2009.
  12. ^ Hamilton, John (2003), Trench Fighting of World War I, ABDO, p. 8, ISBN 1-57765-916-3
  13. ^ Weapons of the western front. National Army Museum. (n.d.).
  14. ^ Dunleavy, Brian (April 23, 2018) [April 26, 2021]. "Life in the Trenches of World War I". History. Retrieved April 15, 2024.
  15. ^ "Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and Ecological Crises". Trade and Environment Database. American University. Archived from the original on 2009-03-27. Retrieved 2009-04-19.
  16. ^ "Yankees Besieged". Time. 1962-03-16. Archived from the original on 2010-08-28.
  17. ^ "S/1302/Rev.1 of 3 April 1949". Archived from the original on 2011-05-14. Retrieved 2017-06-28.
  18. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2012-07-10. Retrieved 2012-09-22.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  19. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-10-08. Retrieved 2012-09-26.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  20. ^ Hasson, Nir (30 October 2011). "Reclaiming Jerusalem's No-man's-land". Haaretz. Archived from the original on 9 February 2014.
  21. ^ "Palestinians for Peace and Democracy". Archived from the original on 2014-11-11.
  22. ^ Gibbons-Neff, Thomas; Yermak, Natalia; Hicks, Tyler (27 November 2022). "In Ukraine, Bakhmut Becomes a Bloody Vortex for 2 Militaries". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on 28 November 2022. Retrieved 2 December 2022.
  23. ^ "Maria Senovilla: 'Bakhmut is the blackest point of the Ukrainian war. Up to 400 Ukrainian soldiers a day are being killed'". Atalayar. 12 December 2022. Archived from the original on 12 December 2022. Retrieved 12 December 2022.
  24. ^ Altman, Howard (29 November 2022). "Ukraine Situation Report: The Bloody Battle For Bakhmut". The Drive. Archived from the original on 2 December 2022. Retrieved 2 December 2022.
  25. ^ Ellyatt, Holly (30 November 2022). "Trenches, mud and death: One Ukrainian battlefield looks like something out of World War I". CNBC. Archived from the original on 2 December 2022. Retrieved 2 December 2022.
  26. ^ "Notorious Wagner Group Targeting Volunteers in Ukraine, U.S. Trainer Says". Newsweek. 7 December 2022. Archived from the original on 10 December 2022. Retrieved 10 December 2022.
  27. ^ "Fighting for Soledar and Bakhmut is the 'Bloodiest' of the War". Kyiv Post. 11 January 2023. Archived from the original on 16 February 2023. Retrieved 11 January 2023.
  28. ^ "Fighting in Soledar and Bakhmut comparable to Battle of Verdun, Zelenskyy's chief-of-staff says". Yahoo News. 13 January 2023. Archived from the original on 7 May 2023. Retrieved 7 May 2023.
  29. ^ How Long Should Ukrainian Forces Defend Bakhmut? Lessons From Stalingrad (Archive)
  30. ^ Horrifying stories of Ukraine war by Wagner’s convicts (Archive)
  • Coleman, Julie (2008). A History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries. Vol. 3. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-954937-5.
  • Persico, Joseph E. (2005). Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918 World War I and Its Violent Climax. Random House. ISBN 0-375-76045-8.