The Wild Deserters, Ravenous Ghouls Who Haunted No Man's Land
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The battlefields of the First World War were mud-drenched nightmare fuel. A soldier's station was a hole in the ground that was constantly being bombarded with mortars and mustard gas, with the closest thing to civilization being a different hole full of people who wanted to murder you. Meanwhile, the land in between was an eerie moonscape of smoking craters, dead bodies and, worst of all, soccer matches. But to your average Tommy or Fritz, what scared them most about No Man's Land were tales of a ghostly group of killers who roamed the barren lands looking for lost soldiers to prey upon.
"OOoooOOOOooooOOooo, run and leave your food rations!"
"*sigh* I know that's just you, Karl."
Comprised of soldiers from every nation fighting in the war -- Australian, Austrian, British, Canadian, French, German, Italian -- the Wild Deserters were an army of men driven mad by the bloodshed and endless poetry. They forged a new underground society inside the abandoned tunnels and craters of No Man's Land, only venturing above ground to loot the dead and dying for food, clothing, weapons, and, according to some, to feast on their flesh.
The legend persisted after the war, mostly in the literary works of former soldiers who saw the Wild Deserters as the perfect symbol for the dehumanization of modern warfare. Civvies first came face-to-face with the tale of the Wild Deserters in The Squadroon, a 1920 novel written by a British Army officer who details watching an entire convoy of POWs disappear into the ground whilst being marched across No Man's Land. A rescue attempt was planned, but according to the author was canceled by the top brass out of fear of further losses to the "ghouls." Several military memoirs thereafter also recalled encounters with the mythical murder hobos. In 1948, the oddly-cheerful Laughter In The Next Room even provided an answer to what happened to the Wild Deserters after the war had ended. According to author Sir Francis Osbert Sacheverell Sitwell, 5th Baronet (Bertie to his friends), Allied brass desperately gassed the battlefields in the hopes of wiping out the deranged marauders.
Imperial War Museum
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