If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.

Monday, 7 May 2012

No Man's Land

It's been just about a year since "If Ye Break Faith" debuted.  At first, all I thought I required was some space to share my passion of military history and showcase my writing for publishers entertaining proposals of the printed work which was to be generated.  Success at this didn't immediately matter to me, the real value "If Ye Break Faith" gave to me was the opportunity to focus on something I was passionate about while all around me was chaos.

As time went on and this space began to pick up momentum, and even more fantastic, an audience, it was apparent to me that I had, almost by accident, created something that had value; and validation.  What remained for me was to find the fight direction and method to the project and see that it got there.  There's been several models for IYBF as a business, and none of them have been quite right, or I've lacked the know-how to actualize.  I've come close to, up to announcing it at times, giving up.  The frustration being that I'm so full of effort and energy with the study of history and its perpetuation, but I kept falling short of my goals.

Here we are, a year later, and things are on the move.  I've had some very pleasant conversations with a business dedicated to the same purpose of promoting remembrance.  I can't describe how exciting the idea of collaborating with them would be.  Nothing is set in stone, yet, but details will be coming hard and fast once the go-ahead is given.  It's very thrilling stuff, I promise.  Keep up to date with us on Twitter and Facebook to make sure you don't miss a beat.

Weeks ago, I was stuck for a topic to expound on.  Nothing quickly came to mind, and I worried about running out of momentum.  I've solicited for suggestions in the past, with minimal success (you can submit ideas questions or comments here, by the way).  The fortunate thing is that I have at my disposal the statistics for search terms which have resulted in a site hit.  Based on many of the highest scoring terms, I can posit that I've been helping students with their homework, but in a way that I don't like.

For all time the search term most used in finding this site is "No Man's Land."  No term could be more ubiquitous to the First World War.  It is so commonly understood that the term itself is indexed only once in a dozen selected histories (ie: the books on WWI that I own.)  It is evocative not just because the term defines what it does, but mainly by the way the words "No Man" conjure up sparsity, vacancy, death.

The use of the phrase pre-dates the war, defining the ground between two properties that belonged to neither land holder.  It was a fitting transfer from that to its better known usage; the land between two contesting armies after they had assumed mutually defensive positions.

When the momentum of open war and manoeuvre faltered and stalled, creating through France and Belgium the trenchlines and fortifications known as the Western Front, the land over which the infantry would have to cross to bring the fight to the enemy took on its nom-de-guerre.  Distance varied with the disposition of the lines, from hundreds of meters at its widest; narrower points measured tens of meters.

Despite its depth, or lack of, moving openly on this ground was to court death.  No defensive position is sited or occupied without the defenders prepared to bring fire down on all the approaches.  In a set battle, the risk was offset by covering artillery meant to keep the opposing force from resisting an advance and there are four years of example as to how well this process worked in an extended exercise of trial and error bought and paid for in human lives.

No Man's Land was so closely watched that a moment's exposure above the trench line could invite a sniper's bullet or give a trench mortar team something to aim at.  May as well, then, stay down and unseen until going over the top was no longer optional.

If only it were that simple.  Trenches need a lot of maintenance, particularly if they've been subject to shelling; the wire obstacles fronting the firing lines needed to be checked and repaired daily; and it is of crucial importance to know that the enemy is up to, even if he's only a few yards away.  Like the unnatural reverse of living below ground which trench warfare created, the nature of No-Man's Land insisted that work be done at night.

At last light, there would be a "stand to" where everyone on the firing line was standing ready at arms to repel an attack.  After sunset, and stand down, the real work began.  Fatigue parties would move forward to make repairs of trench and wire, working as quietly as possible, their efforts slowed by standing still each time a flare was sent to illuminate the ground.  Patrols would also slip out, to close the distance and view the enemy's capabilities, grab a prisoner for questioning or to cause a little mayhem before returning to friendly lines.  Some patrols would find the right lay of ground, camouflage it and remain as an observation post in No-Man's Land for days.

As the war went on, and the same land was contested, the area between the trenches became more un-worldly:  no buildings stood, no trees grew, only mile upon mile of churned earth and the wastage of war.  This vision, the black and white landscape of shell-holes and mud is the one usually playing in the cinema of the mind; a place foreign, forbidding and deadly.  Yet it still has to be gotten across.

I can empathize a bit with the spirits of the war, standing dry-throated and unblinking at a wide, bare land.  "If I stay here," is the shared thought, "I may be safe.  If I move forward, the risk of harm is great."  As things develop for me, I face my own No-Man's Land, represented in the steps I have to take to reach my goal; there's every possibility in which I can falter or fail.

If these men I admire had not made their crossing to engage the enemy, the war could not have been won.  To "win" my struggle, I too must set off over unknown and potentially dangerous ground.  If only I had half their courage.


  1. Beautiful piece about the horror which brings history alive, for me. My grandfather and his twin brother served together in 128 Indian Field Ambulance - RAMC: and served at every major battle on Western Front, with no weapons -I'm sure along the way they met and helped many brave Canadians.
    The scene you describe was their daily reality and all they knew for the duration.
    I hope to follow in their footsteps during the centennial year....

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I found your comment very high praise. I wish you the best of luck in following your grandfather's past, and would be very keen to hear more about it.

    2. Thanks for the encouragement - I hope to start posting some of my work soon at Imp War Museum site as well as Flickr.
      I have records now on my grandfather his 5 brothers, all of whom I knew as a little girl in post-ww2 London, and 5 other great uncles -4 of whom were killed at sea.
      My first love is social history, but am now hooked on what I call 'living military history,' and cannot separate the two!

      Why I am doing all this, and what I bring to the mix of history is, that às a post war baby, I grew up surrounded by the visuals of war, air raid shelters, food rationing, bomb sites, no housing, no jobs, no social safety nets - but surrounded by 2 generations of loving people - unable to talk about war, but carrying the mental wounds for the rest of their lives.
      I am trying to make sense of my family history, my part in it as a living witness to the aftermath of war - and to pass it on..to the younger Canadian generations of our family.

    3. I would strongly encourage you to visit http://www.spiritofremembrance.com/, the company I am employed by as their Canadian Representative. Not only do we have the ability to put together a "war walk" specific to your needs and generational history, out site itself is based on a social network platform where our users can submit photos, videos and text relating to the tours we offer.

      And in my opinion, military history is an extension of social history; and taken the nature of humanity experienced in war, it can provide a clear view of humanity in an extreme example.