No Man's Land

Jan 29, 2018

WWI highlighted the wide-scale and often-noted dissonance between saber-rattling politicians who send people to war and the generally sensible, but often poor and exploited, people who end up fighting and dying in those wars.

Hello, this is Daniel Helbert from Canyon, Texas. This installment of HPPR’s Radio Reader’s Book Club is about Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse—a novel that follows the journey of a farm horse named Joey who travels back and forth across the Western Front of World War I.

In what is unequivocally the central scene of the book, Joey has inadvertently wandered into No Man’s Land after being terrified by tanks, starved by the scorched earth of the battlefield, and mercilessly mauled by barbwire fortifications.

Joey has found himself in one of the most important and yet unimpressive partitions of all the world. No Man’s Land was, in practice, no different from the patches of burnt dirt to the East and West of the trenches, but symbolically it meant much more—the divisions of culture, the goals of each army, the fears of every soldier—No Man’s land symbolized the entire war effort and all the suffering that that effort entailed.

Two soldiers, a Welshman from the Allied trenches and a German from the Central Powers, walk to Joey in No Man’s Land holding white flags. The meeting and the conversation that ensues between them isn’t quite as fantastic and unrealistic as one might think: small informal truces were often agreed upon. Tobacco and newspapers were exchanged, and the poet and veteran Robert Graves even described a soccer match between the two sides during the well-documented Christmas day truce in 1914. According to Graves, the Fritzes beat the Tommies 3 – 2.

We cling to these historical moments for much the same reason that Morpurgo has chosen to depict and emphasize one of them here: because they are evidence that human beings can be rational, empathetic, and humane even in the midst of one of the most atrocious and terrible periods of human history. If people can stop their senseless fighting long enough to save a beautiful and innocent animal like Joey, then maybe there’s hope for us after all.

Another element of Morpurgo’s commentary here has to do with the wide-scale and often-noted dissonance between saber-rattling politicians who send people to war and the generally sensible, but often poor and exploited, people who end up fighting and dying in those wars. After they come to a sensible agreement about Joey, the Welshman turns to the German and remarks, “I think if they would let you and me have an hour or two out here together, we could sort out this wretched mess.” The fact that this commentary is coming from a Welshman—the people who have been colonized and exploited by the English longer than any other—is not a coincidence. The human cost of World War I was not just staggering, it was staggered—unevenly distributed upon the abject and oppressed human and non-human inhabitants of Europe. This meeting between two supposed enemies in the symbolically laden space of No Man’s Land, a meeting to resolve a conflict in sensible, reasonable terms, proves a point for Morpurgo: most disputes, like this one, can be solved with some mutual trust and some common sense. It is when we lose sight of that notion that places like No Man’s Land pop up in the world.

For High Plains Public Radio, I’m Daniel Helbert.