Pat Barker's Regeneration
Critical Contexts

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"Significance of No Man's Land"

Katie Patterson (Spring 2003)

During the First World War, most of the fighting occurred in a centralized area of land between the two opposing trenches. This area is called No Man's Land. No Man's Land is mentioned on pages 52, 214, and 223 in Pat Barker's novel Regeneration. No Man's Land is significant to Regeneration because Barker uses the reference to develop the themes of how authority isn't absolute, and how the horrors of warfare are inescapable.

The width of No Man's Land often varies, but the average distance in most areas was about 250 yards (230 meters). Along No Man's Land were considerable amounts of barbed wire, especially in the areas most likely to be attacked. The areas that were attacked often held ten belts of barbed wire; the wire was more than one hundred feet in some places (Simkin). This barbed wire made the land almost impossible to pass. In addition, wet weather made crossing the area extremely difficult for soldiers (Justin and Robby). The land was full of broken and abandoned military equipment and, after an attack, many bodies. Advances across No Man's Land were difficult because the soldiers had to avoid being shot or blown-up, as well as barbed wire and water-filled shell-holes (Simkin).

Besides having problems advancing, the soldiers also had to worry about their health, injuries, and sniper's bullets. The health conditions were atrocious, so the soldiers had to worry about rats, diseases, and body lice. In addition to the horrible conditions, everyday tasks at the borders of No Man's Land were also abominable. In the trenches, food became scarce towards the end of the war. The lack of food caused many soldiers to worry. Also, the soldiers worried about injuries because it could take awhile before an injured soldier could be treated. Accordingly, some injuries were so bad that amputation of the afflicted area was required (Justin and Robby). Furthermore, the soldiers had to worry about snipers. No Man's Land held a certain allure for the soldiers, thus the cause of the men's concern about snipers. Snipers would "find a tree in no man's land, climb it, and wait. They wore camouflage clothing, and when an enemy soldier walked by, the sniper would shoot him in the head" (Justin and Robby). Snipers could easily hit their targets because, though cautioned against peeking over the edge of the trenches, men would nevertheless and receive a sniper's bullet in the head. In sum, the soldiers had many concerns ranging from health to sniper's bullets.

In addition to worrying about their daily lives in the trenches near No Man's Land, the soldiers had to worry about their lives while fighting there. The commanding officers weren't concerned with the soldiers' lives; they only concerned themselves with winning. As George Robb put it, "strategy had become subservient to logistics" (189). The Battle of Somme was one of the worst battles and many lives were lost. On July 1, the British troops went "over the top" of their trenches and marched across No Man's Land. By marching across the land, the British soldiers became easy targets for the Germans with machine guns. One German soldier later wrote, "We were very surprised to see them walking, we had never seen that before… The officers were in front. I noticed one of them walked calmly, carrying a walking stick. When we started firing we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. You didn't have to aim, we just fired into them" (quoted in Robb 189). This battle caused mass confusion and soldiers became intermingled with the survivors of a battalion which had gone over before them (Keegan 259). However, the majority of English battalions continued attacking across No Man's Land regardless to what happened to those which had preceded them (Keegan, 261). The soldiers realized the danger and one even wrote to his friend that "no one can see the end of this. Even if we live tonight we have to go through tomorrow night -- and next week -- and next month" (Simkin). So, the soldiers continued to fight for their lives and for their country even when the commanding officers put them in unnecessary danger of No Man's Land.

The unnecessary danger that the soldiers face is first described on page 52 of Regeneration. Barker has Prior talk to Rivers about how "every forty-eight hours two platoons crawl out... relieve the poor bastards inside, and provide the Germans with another forty-eight hours' target practice" (Barker 52). Barker uses this scene to show the authority of the Army generals, though in this case, the authority is misguided. The authority is misguided because the Army generals are senselessly sending their men out to the men's deaths in order to maintain "absolute dominance" (Barker 52). Barker has Prior emphasize the irony in sending the men out to be used for target practice: the Army generals can't maintain dominance as their men uselessly fall to the ground. Prior also describes the land on page 214. He thinks about the seeming vastness of the land though he knows that it's merely "a small, pock-marked stretch of ground, snarled with wire" (Barker 214). In this scene, near the end of the novel, Barker describes the inability to escape the horrors of warfare. Prior never has to return to No Man's Land, but he still carries part of it with him. The experience left a lasting impression on his imagination and he can still remember how No Man's Land felt. Through Prior's words and thoughts, the reader can see the significance in Barker's reference to No Man's Land.

Prior's words and thoughts lend relevance to Barker's use of No Man's Land in Regeneration and further reveals the novel’s theme that authority isn't absolute. She reveals this theme by having Prior, a lower-class officer, explain to Rivers about No Man's Land and the unnecessary harm that the generals put the soldiers into for the sole purpose of winning. Prior's experience with No Man's Land is similar to what many soldiers faced in the Battle of Somme, when the English soldiers were used as targets for the Germans. The real situation with the Battle of Somme and Prior's experience show that the commanding officers took unnecessary risks with their men's lives. The men often questioned the commanding officers because of the officers' risks. Prior emphasizes this questioning by mimicking a public school accent, thus mimicking a general's accent since the generals were usually educated at prestigious schools. Rivers also questions the authority of the commanding officers. He questions the authority of the older generation to send the younger one to die in the war. He thinks that a society who "devours its own young reserves" deserves no allegiance (Barker 249). So, the reference of No Man's Land reveals the theme of how authority is not always right.

Besides revealing the theme about authority, No Man's Land is also used to develop the theme of how the horrors of war are inescapable. Prior emphasizes this point as he remembers the feel of No Man's Land. He never has to return to No Man's Land, but he will never forget the memories of the area. In addition, most of the men at Craiglockhart are like Prior and will never forget. Burns, for example, has a horrible recollection of the events. He had been thrown head-first into the gas-filled belly of a German soldier and was never able to escape from the smell of the body. These examples illustrate this theme because both Prior and Burns never return to the war, yet they have to live the rest of their lives with the memories of No Man's Land. Moreover, No Man's Land even affects men who never fought, like Rivers. Rivers has a breakdown, much like the ones that the men he was treating had, because of all the horrible stories he heard about the war; he never even had to step foot in No Man's Land to be affected. Therefore, the theme of how the horrors of war are inescapable emerges through by Prior, Burns, and Rivers' experiences with No Man's Land.

In conclusion, the reference to No Man's Land is significant to Barker's novel Regeneration, because it reveals the themes of how authority isn't absolute and how the horrors of war are inescapable. Prior's experiences in No Man's Land reveal both the themes as he mimics a public school accent and remembers the feel of No Man's Land. The area between the two opposing trenches, No Man's Land, is not only where most of the fighting occurred, but the place where millions of men lie and are remembered making it an area inescapable to our cultural memory.

Works Cited

Barker, Pat. Regeneration. New York: Plume, 2003.

Justin and Robby. "Trench War." 7 April 2003. Davidson County Schools. 16 April 2003. <>

Keegan, John. The Face of Battle. London: Penguin Books, 1978.

Robb, George. British Culture and the First World War. New York, NY: Palgrave, 2002.

Simkin, John. “No Man Land.” 7 April 2003. Spartacus. 16 April 2003.

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