Iron Harvests: The Death Toll from World War I Continues to Grow

WWI ordnance retrieved by a Belgian farmer

I took the picture above during my first tour of the former Ypres battlefield, a key point along the Western Front of World War I. Our tour guide Carl pulled up to a local farmer’s house, opened the garage, and here was a table full of shells, grenades, bullets, and fragments of such ordnance. When we took students on the tour this past January, Carl added that the farmer regularly pulls the grenades out of the sorter during the potato harvest.

It’s an unnerving reminder of a war that, even 99 years after it started, is hard to avoid in Belgium and northern France. At least we didn’t have any real reason to fear for our lives in the presence of these rusty relics. But that farmer probably has a steel plate under his tractor, because a good number of the estimated 1.45 billion shells fired in World War I remain buried beneath the fields of places like Flanders. (Or the land around Verdun, France, host to a ten-month battle in 1916: according to the French Interior Ministry, at least 12 million unexploded shells are still buried there.)

These buried dangers and the people who dispose of them are the subject of a fascinating article by Martin Fletcher in today’s issue of The [London] Telegraph. Fletcher follows Dirk Vanparys and other members of the Belgian Army’s 63-soldier ordnance disposal company as they respond to a few of the 2000 calls they receive each year, collecting British and German shells plowed up and left on the side of the road by local farmers:

Vanparys, 47, appraises them with the expert eye of one who has spent two decades dealing with these lethal relics of the First World War. From their shape, length, calibre and fuses he quickly determines that eight of the shells are British and four German. ‘This is real British steel,’ he says admiringly as he holds up one of the former, and explains that the British Army used higher quality steel that is less susceptible to corrosion. He suspects that three of the shells contain mustard gas or other chemical agents, but sees no sign of leakage. From marks on the casings he concludes that some were fired but failed to explode, while others were never even fired….

At the next scheduled stop the team finds nothing. A farmer had called to say he had left a shell on the roadside, beside a metal pole with a yellow tip, but it is not there. ‘It seems that someone has taken it for a souvenir. There’s no other explanation. It happens,’ he says. ‘People take these things away without knowing what they are. The explosive danger is little, but the toxic danger is great.’

His colleague Geert Denolf adds that unscrupulous locals sometimes take shells from the roadside, clean them up and sell them to unsuspecting tourists in the markets of Ypres. ‘It will be a booming business during the centenary years,’ he predicts. ‘Booming’ in more senses than one, perhaps.

A few of the frightening details from Fletcher’s article:

  • Last year the Belgian and French armies collected a total of 185 tons of WWI munitions; the year before, 274 tons. These “Iron Harvests” have actually become more, not less, fruitful as larger tractors and expanded construction work have churned up more and more materiel from deeper and deeper in the earth. (Back in November 2010, all 450 inhabitants of the French village of Coucy-les-Eppes had to be evacuated for a week while an unearthed German munitions dump was cleared of its 30 tons of shells.)
  • Over the last three years, the Belgian government has paid out nearly €140,000 (over $180,000) in compensation for damage done to tractors, plows, and combines by exploded shells.
  • Such detonations have now killed 358 people near Ypres since the Armistice of November 1918, with another 535 injured, who are officially “mutilés dans la guerre” and entitled to monthly pensions and half-price rail tickets. Since 1944, twenty-three members of the Belgian Army’s ordnance disposal company have died doing this kind of work. And Fletcher points out that detonation is only one of the dangers: many shells carried toxic chemicals like mustard gas (actually a liquid that can seep out of old shells and cause intense blistering) and phosgene gas, which can wound or kill to this day.

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