No Man's Land in 5 objects

From photographs and maps to letters and trees, this is the story of No Man's Land through five objects that have shaped it.

By Durham University

Between the borders - the material of No Man's Land (September 2015) by Elliot GravesDurham University

For nearly 1000 years No Man's Lands have been in existence. They contain the devastating marks of conflict, environmental catastrophe, but also, natural revival and human perseverance.

This is a story of No Man's Land as told through the things left behind, objects that are often forgotten when we focus on vast landscapes and immense suffering contained in these spaces.

The Plan of the Debatable Plan between England and Scotland (1552) by Henry BullockDurham University

1. The map

Throughout history, No Man’s Lands have been conjured into existence with the stroke of a pen on a map. Lines on maps have all-too-often translated into lines of different kinds – of barbed wire, fences, ditches, trenches and walls. But what happens beyond the fences? Henry Bullock's map (1552) of the 'Debatable Land' is the only surviving cartographic record of the No Man's Land that existed between the borders of Scotland and England for more than 350 years.

Green Line Map (1964) by Peter YoungDurham University

Even the most hastily-drawn maps can have remarkably-persistent consequences.

The 'Green Line' that divides the city of Nicosia is one such space. It was created in one swift stroke of a green chinagraph pencil during a late-night meeting in December 1963.

Drawn by Major-General Peter Young, the line's imprecisions and hastily-determined course has had a lasting and ongoing legacy: houses were divided in half, shops and streets became inaccessible. Young's green line remains the route of the UN Buffer Zone through Nicosia.

No Man’s Land, Pervyse, December 1914. (December 1914) by Mairi ChisholmDurham University

2. The photograph

Few people have crossed the fortifications and accessed No Man's Land. Yet its image is utterly familiar. The history of No Man's Land is intricately linked to the history of photography. Developments in photographic technology in the early 20th century created new ways of seeing the world, of documenting war, and of imagining No Man's Land. 

Mairi Chisholm's Photo Album (1914) by Mairi ChisholmDurham University

Some of the earliest-known photographs of No Man's Land were taken by Mairi Chisholm, a Scottish nurse who set up a dressing station near the front lines in the Western Front in November 1914.

Chisholm's photographs reveal the ruination and destruction enacted upon No Man's Land, and the transformative effect of technology on the landscape.

Photos taken on the front line of WWI travelled back to families, were printed on postcards and in magazines. Through these images, No Man's Land became a familiar sight of war in the modern age.

Letter by Isaac Rosenberg To Gordon Bottomley / Daughters of War (12 May 1916) by Rosenberg, Isaac (1890-1918)Durham University

3. The letter and the postcard

Writers and poets have transformed our understanding of No Man's Land, bringing the horrors and wonders of these inaccessible spaces to international attention. Through novels, short stories, poetry, and personal letters we are able to experience the realities of life in No Man's Land and its profound emotional and psychological consequences.

Letter From Wilfred Owens to Mother, Susan Owen (16 January 1917) by Wilfred OwenDurham University

In a letter to his mother from January 1917, the British poet, Wilfred Owen, describes his own personal 'hell' between the trenches.

Owen's experiences in No Man's Land inspired his most renowned poem 'Dulce et decorum est' (1920) – a powerful evisceration of the 'old lie' that is 'sweet and honourable' to die for one's country.

No Mans Land, Flanders Field, France, 1919 (Spring 1919) by W.L KingDurham University

4. Trees

Nature bore many of the scars of the No Man's Land between the trenches of the First World War. Vast areas of forest across northern France and Belgium were cut down by exploding shells, leaving only shredded stumps. During the war, military strategists even camouflaged tall man-made sniper posts to look identical to these shredded, dwarf trees - structures that became know as "O.P. Trees" (British) or "Baumbeobachter" (German: 'tree observer').

Abandoned Post War Tree (July 2018) by Elliot GravesDurham University

Trees still mark the contours of the Great War. Near Verdun, Black Pine trees were planted in the years after the war to prevent the rehabitation of the scarred and poisoned no-man's land.

Today, deep in the forests around Verdun, it is possible to see some of these century-old trees emerging from their original concrete containers.

LIFE Photo Collection

5. Invisible traces

Beyond their material traces, No Man's Lands also leave traces that are harder to detect. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone —the 2,600 km2 restricted area immediately around Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant—is a case in point. The Exclusion Zone has become a seemingly-pristine environment for rehabilitation of flora and fauna. But the invisible nuclear and radioactive legacies are made evident through perimeter signage, the clicks of Geiger counters and the cartographic tracing of radiation and its ongoing dangers.

Weichwanze aus Pripjat, Ukraine (1990) by Cornelia Hesse-HonnigerDurham University

The traces of No Man's Lands can be microscopic in scale and but also have lasting effects.

Using traditional practices of scientific sketching, the Swiss artist Cornelia Hesse-Honniger documents the microscopic mutations in insect and plant life caused by the radiation from the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. Her work is a powerful reminder of the ongoing damage that scars No Man's Land.

Ivo, the head winemaker at Damianitza (September 2015) by Elliot GravesDurham University

Even the most everyday objects can reveal the political contours of No Man's Land.

Along the Cold War frontier between Bulgaria and Greece, No Man's Land wine is produced from grapes that still grow among the old barbed wire, watchtowers and security infrastructures.

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