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The Wild Deserters of World War I

At the 1918 Battle of the Somme, a British cavalry officer orders a search party to follow a dozen German troops into No Man’s Land, swearing he saw them go underground. He was advised against it as the sun was setting – soon, the legend says, wild, ghoul-like men will feast on the Germans and kill anyone who gets in the way. 

Of all the military myths and legends that sprung from World War I, there is possibly no greater mystery – and nothing closer to the men in the trenches – than the Wild Deserters of No Man’s Land. 

Most military myths are passed down from generation to generation, usually from a friend who “knows a guy who was there.” You’ve probably heard about the infamous “ether bunny,” the Bigfoot of the Vietnam War, or even a ghost story or two (especially if you were stationed on Okinawa). The Wild Deserters are a legend shared on both sides of the war by thousands of men across almost all armies. 

Except, notably, the United States. 

The Haunting Realm of No Man’s Land

Everyone knows that No Man’s Land is the area on the front lines between two opposing armies. It’s remembered as a harsh, muddy, unforgiving place, shell-pocked, cratered by unexploded ordnance, and littered with the dead and dying. But that didn’t stop the persistent rumors that men lived out there as the war raged around them. 


Poet Wilfred Owe once described it as “like the face of the moon, chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness.” Screams and moans of dying men, forever lost, echoed across the open ground. Anyone who dared to try and rescue them might never hear the shot that ended their lives too. 

Yet, troops in all the trenches, be they Australian, Austrian, British, Canadian, French, German, or Italian, swore that a cadre of deserters who would no longer fight the war braved life in No Man’s Land. Legend has it they lived off the leavings of the dead, picking away at them for food, water, weapons, and clothing. 

Like something from Night of the Living Dead, they came out at night to fill the bellies with the flesh of the newest dead men and would even fight each other for the freshest morsels. Over time, these deserters slowly devolved from men to feral zombies as they feasted on their fellow soldiers. 

The Legacy and Fate of the Wild Deserters

While most of the men who fought World War I knew the tales of the Wild Deserters, it wasn’t until 1920 that the legend appeared in print for the world to know. It was the aforementioned British cavalryman, Lt. Col. Ardern Arthur Hulme Beaman, who first wrote about them in his wartime memoir, “The Squadroon.”

After that, the legend had been written about dozens of times, even among the Americans, who allegedly had no deserters turn into wild men. It was said that random shots fired in the dead of night were the wild men, who were either fighting over a fresh corpse or creating one from a dying soldier. 

So what happened to these wild men when the war ended and No Man’s Land disappeared? Army Captain Sir Osbert Sitwell wrote that the feral troops were all captured and rounded up, then gassed to death so they couldn’t continue ravaging the French countryside after all the troops departed. 

Read About Other Military Myths and Legends

If you enjoyed learning about the wild deserters of World War I, we invite you to read about other military myths and legends on our blog. You will also find military book reviews, veterans’ service reflections, famous military units and more on the TogetherWeServed.com blog.  If you are a veteran, find your military buddies, view historic boot camp photos, build a printable military service plaque, and more on TogetherWeServed.com today.


Tags: Army Captain Sir Osbert Sitwell, Battle of the Somme, Bigfoot of the Vietnam War, find your military buddies, German troops into No Man's Land, Lt. Col. Ardern Arthur Hulme Beaman, military book reviews, Military Myths and Legends, veterans’ service reflections, Wild Deserters of No Man's Land, World War I


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