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The Zone Rouge: France's Exclusion Zone

Updated on August 28, 2016

Imagine a place so despoiled its very entry is prohibited by national law. An area the size of Paris abandoned for nearly a century. A place so geographically and ecologically annihilated it's as desolate as the surface of Mars. One would think such a place exists only in fiction, yet in France it exists for real. It is the Zone Rouge, the Red Zone.

For nearly 100 years, approximately 460 square miles of the French countryside has been outlawed by its government for any use of any kind. Purpose? Scattered across these acres are an impossible amount of human remains and unexploded weapons left over from World War I.

This map shows the areas the French Government have determined as destroyed after WW1.  Red shows completely devasted while yellow, green and blue show areas that have been deemed moderately damaged or cleaned up enough to be returned to civilization
This map shows the areas the French Government have determined as destroyed after WW1. Red shows completely devasted while yellow, green and blue show areas that have been deemed moderately damaged or cleaned up enough to be returned to civilization

Lasting Legacy of the Great War

In northeastern France, this ecological devastation is so total, it parallels if not supersedes that of Chernobyl or Fukushima. Over a dozen areas, originally spread over 460 square miles, have been deemed too destroyed for any form of housing, farming, or forestry. While clean-up efforts have greatly reduced this acreage over the last century, the red zones, or Zone Rouge, have been declared permanently destroyed.

The Battle of Verdun

Zone Rouge ground zero is the Battle of Verdun, the largest battle of World War I and the one of the most costly in human history: 303 days of fighting resulting in anywhere from 700,000 to 1,250,000 casualties.

The Germans intended Verdun to be a war of attrition. Their plan included inflicting mass casualties to destroy the French will to fight and force the British to peace terms. In the opening assaults, the Germans alone fired more than two million shells. By the battle's end nearly 60 million shells were fired by both sides. With that amount of artillery, entire French villages were literally shredded from existence.

The following villages were wiped from existence during the Great War and never rebuilt, marked only with simple wooden placards.

  • Beaumont-en-Verdunois
  • Bezonvaux
  • Cumières-le-Mort-Homme
  • Fleury-devant-Douaumont
  • Haumont-près-Samogneux
  • Louvemont-Côte-du-Poivre

One of the villages destroyed, marked only by this sign.
One of the villages destroyed, marked only by this sign.
The Verdun Battlefield 100 years after the war, permanently changed by combat.
The Verdun Battlefield 100 years after the war, permanently changed by combat.

The Iron Harvest

As many as one in three of the shells fired were duds. It's no wonder farmers and authorities alike recover more than 900 tons of ordinance during the so-called Iron Harvest each year. The French government's Department du Deminage is the agency tasked with the tedious and dangerous task of collecting unexploded ordinance. It is through this agency that the size of the Zone Rouge has been reduced over the last century.

Cleaning up these shells has had a learning curve. Until the 1970s, ordinance would be collected and destroyed. No consideration was given to the leaking of contaminants into the soil and water. Chemicals like lead, arsenic, mercury, acids, and gases have since penetrated the ground. In some areas the pollution is so concentrated that it kills nearly all plant life even today. The French authorities estimate that at current disposal rates, it will take 700 years to clean the Zone Rouge.

Piles of shells both French and German recovered during the Iron Harvest.
Piles of shells both French and German recovered during the Iron Harvest.
French authorities removing some old heavy artillery shells.
French authorities removing some old heavy artillery shells.

Ongoing Casualties of World War I

Nearly 100 years after the fighting, World War I is still claiming lives all across Europe. Since the armistice, over 1,000 people have been killed as the result of ordinance, mines, and chemicals that still litter the countryside.

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