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The Zone Rouge, the Most Poisonous Place in France.

Jason Ponic works in the exciting world of Hollywood film and television by day and writes by night.

This map shows the areas the French Government has 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 inhabited.

This map shows the areas the French Government has 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 inhabited.

The Continuing Devastating Environmental Impact of War

Imagine a place so despoiled its very entry is prohibited by national law. An area the size of Paris has been abandoned for nearly a century and will remain so for centuries to come. 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, France's very own Exclusion Zone.

For 100 years, approximately 400 square miles of the French countryside have been outlawed by its government for any use of any kind. Why? An impossible amount of human remains, unexploded weapons, and toxic ecological damage are scattered across these acres, all left over from World War I.

Lasting Legacy of the Great War

In northeastern France, this ecological devastation is so total that 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. Parts of it are so saturated with poisonous chemicals that nothing can grow there, not even vegetation.

The Battle of Verdun

Zone Rouge ground zero is the Battle of Verdun, the largest of World War I and one of the most costly in human history: 303 days of fighting resulting in anywhere from 700,000 to 1,250,000 casualties. The exact number is so large that it's impossible to gauge an accurate count.

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 into 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 enormity of artillery, entire French villages were annihilated, forests shredded to flaming chaos, and even geographic features like mountains, hills, and rivers completely reshaped.

Imagine a simple target at a firing range shot with a shotgun. You start shooting. You're not trying to hit the bullseye, just hitting some part of it. You've now hit it so much and shredded it, but you are still shooting . . . now imagine that same principle across miles and miles of landscape. The end results are completely unrecognizable.

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

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 ordnace. 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, ordnance 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's killed nearly all plant life. Even a century later, the soil resembles the soil on Venus, unable to support life. The French authorities estimate that at current disposal rates, it will take 700 years to clean the Zone Rouge to the point of usability.

Ongoing Casualties of World War I

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

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Jason Ponic