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The Explosive Legacy of World War I

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

More than 100 years after World War I, thousands of unexploded shells and bombs are still being found in north eastern France and southern Belgium every year. Huge areas are deemed “No-Go” zones because of all the still-dangerous weaponry of the past waiting to claim a victim.

Necessity is the mother of invention for a British officer who leans his wrecked chair against an unexploded German shell.

Necessity is the mother of invention for a British officer who leans his wrecked chair against an unexploded German shell.

The Scale of Bombardment

It’s hard to grasp the magnitude of the shelling that took place in the battlefields of Flanders. In the week-long prelude to the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, the Allies fired 1,738,000 shells at German positions. That was just one of the many battles in the four-year long conflict.

It’s estimated that about 1.5 billion shells were fired by all sides during the Great War.

According to the BBC “for every square metre of land in this vast region it is said that a tonne of explosives fell during World War I, and one shell in every four failed to go off.”

Shell manufacturing in England; 25% destined to be duds.

Shell manufacturing in England; 25% destined to be duds.

Colline Gellard leads guided tours around the area where the Battle of the Somme took place. He told National Public Radio that unexploded shells are constantly working their way to the surface in farmer’s fields: “"We call it the iron harvest ...” he says.

In almost any area, people still pick up grenades, rifles, and the other materiel of war. “Sadly,” says Gellard, “we’re still digging up a lot of bodies.” Of course, they are skeletons now, but they are treated with dignity and given a proper burial.

Many shells landed in mud the consistency of butter offering insufficient resistance to activate the impact detonators.

Many shells landed in mud the consistency of butter offering insufficient resistance to activate the impact detonators.

The Red Zone (Zone Rouge)

People are prohibited from entering an area of 100 km2 near Verdun in north eastern France. It was the scene of fierce battles that lasted for almost the whole of 1916.

For 303 days, the two sides slugged it out. The French suffered 377,231 dead, the Germans around 337,000. However, recent research suggests the carnage may have been much higher. And, the casualty list continues to grow today.

There is so much unexploded ordnance that authorities have surrounded the area with fences and warning notices. Nevertheless, some people still think it’s a good idea to wander about in the forested wasteland.

War History Online notes that “… not everyone who goes in comes out alive. If they do, there’s no guarantee that they’ll do so with all of their limbs intact. Of those who do come out (whole or otherwise), death sometimes takes a while to catch up.” That’s because some of the shells contain poison gas rather than high explosives.

A Verdun battlefield still showing shell craters but hiding unexploded ordnance (UXO).

A Verdun battlefield still showing shell craters but hiding unexploded ordnance (UXO).

The steel casings on the munitions are rusting away. When that happens, the contents weep out into the soil. Those contents are highly toxic, especially if the shell contained mustard or chlorine gas.

Government testing has found levels of arsenic in the soil of Red Zones several thousand times higher than in earlier years when the casings were still mostly intact. The poison is now leaching into the groundwater.

Then, there’s the lead from bullets and shrapnel; that’s also contaminating the local water. And, mercury and zinc are adding their pernicious contribution to the ecosystem.

Clearing the Explosive Shells

The people tasked with clearing up the mess left behind by the industrial killing machine classify what they find in one of two ways―very dangerous and a bit less dangerous.

In France, the job falls to the Département du Déminage (Department of Mine Clearance).

According to War History Online“When WWI ended in 1918, the French realized that it would take several centuries to completely sweep the area clear―some experts suggest it could take between 300 to 700 years, maybe more.”

The work is hazardous. About 630 French bomb disposal experts have been killed handling live munitions since 1945. The Belgian Explosive Ordnance Disposal group has also suffered numerous casualties. In addition, civilians die when they try to move unexploded weapons that might turn up in the gardens, or farmer’s fields, or are unearthed by construction and utility crews.

According to The Telegraph “In the Ypres area 358 people have been killed and 535 injured by First World War munitions since the guns finally fell silent in 1918 …”

Agence France Presse reported on a clearing team based in Colmar in the Alsace region that borders on Germany. It receives about a dozen calls each day from people who have found unexploded munitions.

Very carefully, the shells are moved from where they are found and taken to remote and secret locations where they are blown up.

Poison Gas Left After Great War

Dealing with the thousands of poison-gas shells is more difficult. Blowing them up and releasing their toxic contents is not an option.

Belgium has a large base near the town of Poelkapelle in the western part of the country. Shells thought to contain chemical weaponry are taken there and x-rayed. If the contents are solid, such as would be the case with white phosphorous, they are blown up in special steel chambers.

Shells containing liquid chemicals, such as chlorine or mustard gas, have to be drained of their contents and then sent elsewhere to be chemically neutralized and burned at a high temperature.

In another facility not far away, “stands an enormous stockpile of poison gas out in the open, rusting, and barely guarded. The stockpile grows every day. An accident here would have unimaginable consequences” (The Heritage of the Great War).

The stockpile is in a forest near Houthulst. Both it and Poelkapelle are within 20 km of Ypres where five major battles were fought and over a million soldiers died.

In 1988, a commander of the Houthulst storage depot warned that “The longer these munitions continue to be stored, the more they degenerate and it becomes even more dangerous to manipulate the munitions at a later stage.”

The later stage has arrived, and crews are working through the stockpile of 18,000 unexploded shells as more arrive each day.

British soldiers blinded by tear gas.

British soldiers blinded by tear gas.

Bonus Factoids

  • Maité Roël was eight years old when she was on a camping trip near Wetteren in Flanders. It was July 1992, and fellow campers were throwing logs on a campfire. One of the logs turned out to be an unexploded shell that promptly detonated. Maité’s left leg was almost completely severed. Doctors saved the limb and Maité is now officially a casualty of World War One―“mutilée dans la guerre,” possibly the youngest person to be so designated. She receives a war pension and is entitled to travel on Belgian railways at half price.
  • Geert Denolf is with the Belgian Explosive Ordnance Disposal team. He says there are crooks around who pick up unexploded shells and sell them to tourists as souvenirs, who take them home having no idea they have extremely dangerous munitions in their homes.
  • In a six-month period in 1919, the British sent 1,600 rail cars loaded with unused shells, grenades, fuses, mortar bombs, and other ordnance to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge. The deadly cargo was loaded onto ships, taken a few hundred metres offshore, and dumped in the sea. These weapons continue to wash up on nearby beaches.

Sources

  • “Legacies of the Great War.” Kevin Connolly, BBC, November 3, 1998.
  • “WWI Munitions Still Live Beneath Western Front.” Eleanor Beardsley, NPR, November 11, 2007.
  • “The Real ‘No-Go Zone’ of France: A Forbidden No Man’s Land Poisoned by War.” MessyNessy, May 26, 2015
  • “The ‘Red Zone’ In France Is So Dangerous that 100 Years After WWI It Is Still A No-Go Area.” Shahan Russell, War History Online, October 27, 2016.
  • “People Are Still Clearing Out Deadly World War I Mines From Northeastern France 100 Years Later.” Agence France Presse, May 12, 2014.
  • “Lethal Relics From WW1 Are Still Emerging.” Martin Fletcher, The Telegraph, July 12, 2013.
  • “The Abomination of Houthulst.” Rob Ruggenberg, The Heritage of the Great War, undated.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor

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