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Afterword: Deep War Time

A first centenary, like 2018’s of the Armistice, is a kind of hinge in time. It marks the point at which a commemorative scale of years and decades begins to swing outward toward a longer scale of centuries and even millennia. Such a moment is like the edge of a continental shelf where, with our feet still in the shallows of calendrical time, we peer over that rim into the undersea canyon of deep time. This is to begin thinking about the deep future of the First World War—to imagine the conditions under which its next centenaries will be observed; to speculate about how its political, economic, and cultural sequelae will be felt and understood; and to turn our attention to the long half-lives of its toxicity and to its other perdurable environmental legacies. It’s also to begin seeing the war against the backdrop of the deep past and to consider the long arcs of geological and premodern human time that subtend, and intersect in, those four years. Here I find it hard not to imagine a vertical slice of the earth’s surface that exposes, in cross section, successive layers of decomposing biological matter and then of soil and rock embedded with archaeological and paleontological remains. In this stratigraphic cut, the First World War might have inscribed itself as a distinct event, like a layer of Vesuvian ash in a Greenland ice core sample. The work of Mary Dudziak and others rightly cautions us against making too-stark distinctions between wartime and peacetime, given how such distinctions are used to mask the perennialization of conflict and to license putatively temporary expansions in the state’s capacity to detain, injure, torture, and kill.[1] But when we scale up temporally, even the perpetual wartime of late modernity appears as discrete again against a deep terrestrial time almost entirely devoid of human conflict. Deep time and peacetime approach one another asymptotically.

Terrestrial time may be largely empty of human wars, but modern warfare affords us particular ways of apprehending deep time. Advances in aviation and photography during the First World War, for example, gave rise to a new wing of archaeology that used aerial photographs to map, study, and discover premodern sites. We need to bear in mind that a war can not only contribute to but also disturb and expose the stratigraphic record. Especially so when that war entails a lot of excavation, as this summer 1918 sketch by British second lieutenant and amateur archaeologist Francis Buckley reminds us the Great War did (fig. 1).[2]

Francis Buckley, sketch from summer 1918.
Fig. 1. Francis Buckley, sketch from summer 1918. Courtesy of the Manchester Museum, Manchester, UK.

What’s more, a war that excavates will awaken the geological, paleontological, and archaeological imaginations of its participants. Even as the war will have inscribed itself on the deep time measured by stratigraphy, then, deep time will have inscribed itself on the war. To the other times of war chronicled in this cluster—suspended, doubled, civil–postcolonial, unnatural, spiraling, and generically weak—I’ll add the concept of deep war time, a temporal cut where we might read the reciprocal inscriptions of the fleeting and the durative, the poem and the fossil. The first part of this afterword considers a case in which a First World War poet and poem were caught up in meta-archaeological processes of excavation, dating, and curation. And the second turns from the deep past to the deep future as it is entailed in the long poisoning of the very ground of war.[3]

Somme Excavations

In the last two decades, important work on the First World War has tried to shift our attention away from the trenches of the Western Front to other sites, and particularly to the non-white, non-Euro-American subjects and communities that were involved in this truly global conflict. So it’s with some reluctance that I remain stuck in the mud of the Somme. But it’s partly owing to the properties of that soil that I’m still dug into this overworked site, which before it became a metonym for the First World War was famous for the early human tools and remains embedded in its sandy, gravelly ground. The person who put the Somme Valley on the paleontological map was a customs official and amateur archaeologist from Abbeville called Jacques Boucher de Crèvecoeur de Perthes. In 1841, Boucher de Perthes (as he was known) was excavating the fossils of extinct mammalia such as elephants and rhinoceros at Menchefort, near Abbeville, when his team turned up flint scrapers and hand-axes they believed had been worked by early humans. Over the next few years Boucher de Perthes et al. found a large number of similar flint tools in the area, often mingled with the fossilized remains of extinct megafauna. In 1859 a panel of British scientists reviewed and corroborated these findings, which established the existence of humans in the Pleistocene and went a long way toward confirming a human antiquity vastly in excess of even the most expansive Biblical time scales. As Boucher de Perthes put it in his three-volume Celtic and Antediluvian Antiquities (1847–64), “Dieux est éternel, mais l’homme est bien vieux.”[4] God is eternal, but humankind is very old.

Unfortunately, very little remains of Boucher de Perthes’s specimens or archives, which were largely destroyed in June 1940 during the German invasion of France. But the pertinent fact here is that when the Somme Valley combatants dug into their trench networks in the First World War, they were living and fighting in what was incidentally the world’s largest archaeological dig in one of the richest fossil beds on the planet. Moreover, some of them—especially those who had come to practice archaeology as a hobby—knew and recorded the fact that they were living among early human remains. Francis Buckley (see fig. 1 again) marked the locations of “implements,” flint tools of Neanderthal origin that he had found along the tops of the trench parapets where they had been deposited by the infantrymen who dug them out of the yellow loess and brown loam. As Kitty Hauser puts it in her biography of the archaeologist O. G. S. Crawford, “A sharpened flint sticking out of the side of a trench may have been a reassuring sight to an amateur archaeologist serving his country; a human point of reference, an identifiable historical compass, an object comforting to the hand, more familiar perhaps than the unreal present.”[5] She continues: “More often, after all, unspeakable and barely identifiable things would emerge from the mud: body parts of fallen soldiers ‘known only to God’ as the phrase went; men whose nameless remains had now become part of the archaeological record” (Hauser, Bloody Old Britain, 27). To practice amateur archaeology in the trenches was a welcome alternative to confronting the prospect of becoming part of some future archaeologist’s find.

We’re now living in the time of those future archaeologists—in this case, the practitioners of the subdiscipline of conflict archaeology, which studies not only the physical remains of war but the social, cultural, and psychological dimensions that can be extrapolated from those remains and connected to other records. In 2003, a group of conflict archaeologists calling themselves No-Man’s-Land: The European Group for Great War Archaeology decided to excavate at Serre, a battlefield in the Somme Valley. However, the members of No-Man’s-Land weren’t looking for human remains, for modern war materiel, or even for premodern artifacts. What drew them to Serre was a poem. In January 1917, Wilfred Owen and the Manchesters “A” company he was commanding occupied several captured German trenches in the area and endured heavy shelling by the enemy there. During one of these bombardments, the events Owen would later capture in his posthumously published poem “The Sentry” unfolded in a dugout the Germans had installed in a salient trench called The Heidenkopf, or “Heathen Head.” The poem’s second stanza describes the pandemonium that ensues when an enemy shell explodes near the dugout:

       There we herded from the blast

    Of whizz-bangs; but one found our door at last, –

Buffeting eyes and breath, snuffing the candles,

And thud! flump! thud! down the steep steps came thumping

And sploshing in the flood, deluging muck,

The sentry’s body; then his rifle, handles

Of old Boche bombs, and mud in ruck on ruck.[6]

The speaker relights the same candles extinguished by the blast to see whether the sentry has been blinded by it, and when the wounded man finally shouts “I see your lights!” the speaker, beaten down by both the shelling and the war, brings the poem to a close with the retort: “But ours had long gone out” (Owen, Complete Poems, 188). This was the site the archaeologists were hoping to uncover (fig. 2.) They were accompanied by a BBC crew filming the excavations for an archaeology and heritage show called Meet the Ancestors. And they would be joined in the final phase of the digging by Owen’s nephew, Peter Owen, on his first-ever trip to the Western Front.

Map indicating location of Owen’s dugout just off the Serre Road.
Fig. 2. Map indicating location of Owen’s dugout just off the Serre Road. Helen McPhail and Philip Guest, On the Trail of the Poets of the Great War: Wilfred Owen (Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 1998), 35.

Why Owen, and why “The Sentry”? By 2003, Owen had long been one of the paradigmatic figures of Great War Britain, his name practically a metonym for trench poetry and for war poetry generally. But he was also, in his prewar youth, first a rock and fossil collector and then a lover of archaeology, having written his first war poem in 1913 about excavations at Wroxeter—an ode to the artefacts being dug up there related to the wartime destruction of the Roman city of Virconium. Since Owen himself was interred in the Communal Cemetery in Ors, France, there was no need to seek his remains under the Somme farmland. But to uncover some material connection to a poem keyed to a specific event, at a site already identified by Owen-watchers that was itself already a kind of excavation, seemed to pay a fellow archaeology lover the compliment of an in-kind gesture.

Early in their excavations, the No-Man’s-Land archaeologists found what they thought to be the entrance to a dugout but turned out to be the top of a mineshaft. In the end they found a line of trench duckboards but never the dugout, their search for it waylaid by the discovery of the remains of three soldiers, one British and two German. Among these, the British soldier, a member of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment but otherwise unidentifiable, received the most attention from the editors of Meet the Ancestors and from the press. Given the program’s heritage focus this was unsurprising. Found next to the British soldier’s remains, as if to authenticate the site’s connection to Owen’s poem, were three candles, and for Peter Owen, the poet’s nephew, the uncovering of these candles was “the most poignant moment of all.”[7]

For the lead excavators, however, the remains of the two German soldiers were just as interesting, not least because they could be identified thanks to objects found with them and cross-referenced with wartime records. The first was one Jakob Hönes, whose remains were returned to and buried in his home city, where his last surviving son was still resident. The second was Alfred Thielecke, an NCO killed in action on June 11, 1915. Thielecke was identified thanks to a bundle of papers found with his remains. But his bread bag excited the No-Man’s-Land team even more than the papers did, for it contained—along with typical soldierly effects such as harmonica, razor, penknife, keys, and pipe—a Bronze-age flint scraper of the kind that Boucher de Perthes had discovered in the area in the 1840s and Francis Buckley had found along the trench parapets in 1918 (fig. 3). Maybe Thielecke, like Buckley and Owen himself, was an amateur archaeologist or paleontologist and had some sense of the age and importance of the flint implement. Maybe he had won or taken the scraper from someone else, or simply thought it might come in handy.

Personal effects of Albert Thielecke (d. 1915), found in his bread bag
Fig. 3. Personal effects of Albert Thielecke (d. 1915), found in his bread bag: harmonica, razor, knife, and Bronze age flint scraper (center). Photograph by Luke Barber. Originally appeared in Alastair H. Fraser and Martin Brown, “Mud, Blood and Missing Men: Excavations at Serre, Somme, France,” Journal of Conflict Archaeology 3, no. 1 (2007): 147–71, 168.

Regardless, the members of No-Man’s-Land were haunted to find, amid the punctuality of industrialized, twentieth-century warfare, a relic of deep human time in a war-torn landscape where such relics were being simultaneously brought to light and pulverized. They were haunted, as well, by this instance of what Nils Fabiansson has called meta-archaeology: an archaeology of archaeology and archaeologists, an excavation of those who once excavated. As No-Man’s-Land member Martin Brown put it,

The discovery of the flint gave pause to the archaeologists caused by a sense of identification with Thielecke through this humble scraper. Like him, we all recognized this as a worked flint and the artefact was of a type that several of the team also had in their possession. Whatever else we could say about Thielecke, it was possible to regard him as someone who recognized an artifact familiar to us and with whom one could have conversed and had something in common. As a result, we felt a connection with the skeleton before us, even after the passage of 88 years.[8]

This is deep war time in a nutshell, a tableau in which wartime and deep time repeatedly interrupt one another to the point where they nearly fuse. Trench-makers interrupt, with their shovels, the stratigraphic archive of deep time. A late-Pleistocene human tool exhumed by that interruption in turn detains a soldier amid the “unreal present” of war-making. His life is interrupted by an untimely death in a war whose lethal force is largely powered by fossil fuels. His body, for decades part of the stratigraphic archive rewritten by the war, accompanies the flint tool it re-entered in that archive—until their transtemporal intimacy is ended in 2003 by another sudden shovel. There’s a more circuitous meta-archaeology at work, too, in this parable of deep war time. Amateur archaeologist Wilfred Owen writes a war poem that inspires an attempt to unearth the poem’s site, an attempt the living archaeologists are willing to make partly because they recognize Owen as one of their own. And though that attempt does not lead to the recovery of Owen’s dugout, it does lead to the disinterment—and to the eventual re-interment—of yet another fossil keeper, one bit of strange matter keeping near him, in life and then in death, another bit of strange matter.

No-Man’s-Land as Toxic Commons

My discussion so far has been shadowed by the term no-man’s-land, the area between front-line-trenches as well as the name adopted by the conflict archaeology group that went looking for Owen’s dugout. It’s a term that’s all too familiar in narratives about the First World War, but it continues to carry an uncanny charge we may be in a better position to appreciate now, having begun to think about how deep war time’s long temporal axis intersects with the spaces and shorter timeframes through which we habitually encounter the war. No-man’s-land has at least two senses, one descriptive and one normative or monitory. The descriptive sense says simply: this is land owned by no one. The normative or monitory sense says: this is a place where no one should go, that all are warned against traversing. This admonition is different, we should note, from a “no trespassing” sign, whose warning is based on the prior occupancy of land by an owner who could cross or inhabit it without trespass. No-man’s-land implies, simultaneously, that all are trespassing (because none should go there); and that no one is trespassing (because there is no territorial right to violate). One reading of the phrase’s uncanniness would ascribe it to a prohibition rooted in something deeper than property rights, an uninhabitability based in something more elemental than prior occupancy: an ontological bar or some other primal horror. Another would posit a relation of mutual haunting by the descriptive and normative senses of the term. That is, a haunting of systems of property by danger, and of danger by systems of property. There’s a residue of the sacred, too, about no-man’s-land that’s related to but not reducible to its historical uses as a killing ground—in World War One, of course, as the conflict’s most blood-saturated earth, but also in the middle ages, when no-man’s-land named a place for executions. It partakes, as well, of the sacredness of jurisdiction, and of its limits and its outside—the sacredness of jurisdiction’s other. If we are to understand how these forms of consecration may in turn sanctify war, we need to take account of their deep history.

In contrast to the phrase’s First World War usage, the medieval term nomanneslonde (also nanesmaneslande, or “none man’s land,” in the Domesday Book) and the Roman synonym terra nullius (no one’s land, nullius being the genitive singular of nullus, “no one”) are on their face less normative than descriptive. (“On their face” because white settler colonialism frequently mischaracterized indigenous lands as terra nullius as a bad-faith pretext for their seizure and occupation.) These terms denoted unclaimed, contested, or “waste” land that was often outside town limits and used for everything from trash disposal to public hangings. Such pieces of land are not possessed, not subject to a jurisdiction, and consequently no one’s responsibility—are dumping grounds for disjecta but also sanctified places outside the polity where sovereignty enacts its right to take life. And here’s one of the most counterintuitive facts about that strip of space whose wartime incarnation is so desperately territorialized: it has often been conceived of, historically, as a commons because it lies outside the jurisdiction of town, parish, or estate. There are still some half dozen places in the UK called Nomansland, and most of them have been at one time or another “inter-parochial” spaces contested by two parishes. In Hertfordshire’s Nomansland Common, for instance, one abbey would erect a gallows, the other would tear it down, and there were squabbles about which churchyard would be the final resting place for people who died on the common. Jurisdiction needs its outside, so that its responsibility has limits; but it will also stake a great deal in contesting those limits when a rival jurisdiction lays claim to its outside.

Here, then, are a few questions we might carry with us. What changes in our understanding of the military no-man’s-land—the cratered strip between trenches, or the demilitarized zone lined by fences and guard towers—when we factor in its relation to the commons? Might we articulate, with respect to no-man’s-land, a distinct “tragedy of the commons”—a depletion or ruination of a collective resource through the self-interested actions of individual members of the collective, a kind of “privatization of profit, socialization of loss”? What happens when we subject the normative sense of no-man’s-land to a haunting by its descriptive sense, and vice versa? When we reconnect the military connotations of the term to its exogenous roots in property law, land management, and parish politics? And when we understand how violence, in turn, undergirds those ostensibly “peacetime” regimes? To reconnect no-man’s-land to the commons in pursuing such questions is in no way to negate the more utopian potential of the commons as a concept. It’s to insist, rather, on that concept’s radical fragility—its proximity to tragic loss and its capacity, when abused, to sanction truly devastating expropriations—and thus on the burdens of care and history that press on anyone who invokes the commons for purposes of social transformation.

Circling back to the no-man’s-land of the Western Front enables us to think this uncanny commons in another direction, toward the deep future. Most of the war’s trench networks were filled in long ago. But the no-man’s-lands of the Battle of Verdun form the spine of what is known today as the Zone Rouge: an area of around 100 square kilometers—roughly equivalent in size to the city of Paris—that has been designated unfarmable, uninhabitable, indeed untraversible, a land where no one should go and where no one does go. Why? Because in the Zone Rouge the density of human and animal remains, unexploded ordnance and chemical weapons, and soil contamination from lead, zinc, mercury, arsenic, chlorine, and phosgene makes the land, now 102 years after Verdun, too toxic for human use. According to Olivier Saint Hilaire, a photographer whose images of the Zone Rouge have circulated widely, 544 municipalities in the area, the majority of them along the old Verdun front lines, were recently ruled to have undrinkable water owing to high concentrations of the munitions chemical perchlorate.[9] Meanwhile, workers clearing the Zone Rouge and farmers in neighboring zones continue to be injured or killed by detonating First World War munitions. Whereas the no-man’s-lands of the war years were fairly narrow corridors between front-line trenches, the present-day no-man’s-land of the Red Zone is a thicker band owing to the war’s broader distribution of toxicity and to the century-long spread of toxification through water and soil. And that’s just a toxicity of spatial extent. Like so many other tragedies of the commons, this one has also produced a ruination in and for time—a toxic futurity whose exact duration is impossible to project. According to Saint Hilaire, some authorities estimate that at the current rate it will take between 300 and 700 years to clear the area of chemicals, heavy metals, and ordnance. Others doubt the Zone Rouge will ever be habitably cleared of the war’s remains.

The no-man’s-land of trench warfare was an overdetermined space in part because so many spatial functions or analogies were concentrated there. It was a military objective—an object of tactical desire that each side wanted to acquire in the process of advancing its lines. It was simultaneously the space in which military operations were rolled out, the illocutionary and perlocutionary space of tactical utterance. It was a commons, like the Nomansland Common in Hertfordshire, in being a buffer between jurisdictions—in this case, the military jurisdiction delimited by each adversary’s lines—and belonging to neither, simultaneously contested and controlled by both, co-constituted by adversaries through a surprisingly intimate coordination of spatial practices.[10] And as we have seen, it was not just a commons tout court but a toxic commons: a coordinated space empoisoned by the terms of that coordination. For where the main communal function of a conventional commons is extractive—a shared reservoir of resources drawn on or drawn down by its members—the chief communal function of a toxic commons is depository. This kind of commons exists not for the withdrawal and dissemination of benefits but for the accumulation and concentration of harm. For all that the phrase no-man’s-land implies depopulation and emptiness, the tragedy of this commons lies less in over-depletion than in an excessive repletion: the tragedy not of the desert but of the dump. And oddly, to the extent no-man’s-land is seen as hallowed ground, its setting apart is a function of that dumping, at once constituted and guaranteed by the land’s toxification toward the deep future. In its untriumphalist and unredemptive consecration of war’s ground, the Zone Rouge may be the First World War’s most powerfully critical monument.

Centenaries Deep

On November 11, 2018, I was in the Belgian city of Leuven for an academic conference on Romanticism in the Age of World Wars. Late that morning I walked from the Irish College to Sint Pieterskerk, checking my phone to be sure I arrived before the clock struck eleven. Other pedestrians around me were also carefully timing their movements so when the moment came they would be at the right place. A local news crew stood on the steps of the Town Hall, their camera aimed at the church’s clock. On the stroke of eleven the organ music in the church came to an end; in the still-unfinished tower the bells began to peal (fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Sint Pieterskerk, Leuven, Belgium, November 11, 2018, 11 a.m. Video by the author.

They had a lot of local history to commemorate: the sack of Leuven in August 1914 during which a fifth of the city’s buildings were destroyed and Sint Pieterskerk itself was damaged by fire; the rape and murder of hundreds of civilians and the expulsion of the citizenry by the retaliating army; the incineration of the university library, including some 300,000 medieval books and manuscripts that were doused in gasoline and set alight by German soldiers. At the same time, a punctual commemoration measured out in minutes had begun to seem ill-scaled to a war ostensibly a century gone. That war’s ongoing forms of injury, like those of other modern wars, may now need a deeper calendar—one decoupled from the premise that war’s active depredations end with the cease-fire, or even with its centenary.


[1] See Mary L. Dudziak, War·Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[2] A simplified version of the same image appears in Francis Buckley, “Finds of Flint Implements in the Red Line Trenches at Coigneux, 1918,” Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society of East Anglia 3, no. 3 (1920): 380–88, 382.

[3] The notion of deep war time resonates with Rob Nixon’s work on slow violence and Roy Scranton’s on war and the Anthropocene—both in decentering war’s punctual forms of violence and in wishing to pursue the political, ethical, and aesthetic questions that arise from that decentering. See Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011); and Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of Civilization (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 2015) and We’re Doomed. Now What? Essays on War and Climate Change (New York: Soho, 2018).

[4] Jacques Boucher de Perthes, Antiquités celtiques et antédiluviennes: Mémoire sur l’industrie primitive et les arts à leur origine (1857), (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 2:359.

[5] Kitty Hauser, Bloody Old Britain: O. G. S. Crawford and the Archaeology of Modern Life (London: Granta, 2008), 27.

[6] Wilfred Owen, “The Sentry,” in Wilfred Owen: The Complete Poems and Fragments, ed. Jon Stallworthy (London: Chatto & Windus, 1983), 1:188.

[7] Stephen Bates, “Researchers’ Find Brings Wilfred Owen Poem to Life,” The Guardian, February 25, 2004.

[8] Martin Brown, “The Fallen, the Front, and the Finding: Archaeology, Human Remains, and the Great War,” Archaeological Review from Cambridge 22, no. 2 (2007): 53–68, 55.

[9] See Olivier Saint Hilaire, “Sur la zone rouge.”

[10] On the contested status of no-man’s-land as a matter of property, see Malcolm Brown, The Imperial War Museum Book of the First World War (London: Sidgwick and Johnson, 1993), 57. The British High Command, however, maintained that the British front line extended all the way to the German lines, making no-man’s-land, jurisdictionally, a misnomer.