Beneath the surface of the old Western Front lurks a lethal menace.
Even though it ended over a century ago, the Great War is somehow still killing people every year. For lurking underneath the old battlefields of the Western Front, lie millions of unexploded shells.
Farmers tending the still battle scarred fields, regularly unearth these relics with their ploughs, and often with deadly results. We went to explore what was once, two of the most horrific places on earth, the Somme and Ypres, on the trail of what has become known every year as the Iron Harvest.
Our first stop is the old medieval cloth manufacturing city of Ypres in Belgium. The ancient city weighs heavy in the British and Commonwealth psyche due to the number of casualties suffered here, estimated somewhere between 800,000 and 1,200,000. For four years, some of the bloodiest fighting of the war took place here and the surrounding countryside is still marred by surreal, un-natural looking undulations in the landscape, permanently damaged by shell craters and trenches.
When people picture World War One, it is generally the Western Front that comes to mind; miserable trenches filled with rain and rats, barbed wire, and futile attacks ‘over the top’. But the over riding and deadliest characteristic of the war was the artillery. By 1915, generals on both sides saw that winning the artillery war was the only solution to troops buried deep into bunkers and trenches.
Swiftly, the world’s wealthiest powers, Britain, Germany and France geared their formidable industrial might, to creating as many artillery shells as possible. It is hard to know exactly just how many shells were fired during World War One, but its estimated at somewhere around 1.45 billion.
The barrages were devastatingly lethal;
“Imagine yourself standing in a trench with water well over your knees….while thousands of unseen shells come shrieking and whining over head…….there is a very slight pause – then CR-R-R-ASSH! It bursts with a tearing, rumbling blinding crash, sending tons of earth into the air to fall back on the inmates of the trench, and hurling thousands of red-hot splinters in all directions, killing or maiming all whom they happen to strike. And all around are men moaning in agony or lying still on the ground.”
-Private Albert Atkins, 7th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, 167th Brigade, 56th Division.
But many of these millions of shells never exploded; alarmingly, much of this hundred year old ordnance is still there, silently rusting and waiting. In Ypres alone over 260 people have been killed by unexploded shells since the war ended in 1918.
We head east out of Ypres, passing through the sombre Menin Gate, a memorial to over 60,000 British and Commonwealth troops who’s bodies were never found. On the road towards the village of Hooge is a small church. It looks fairly anonymous apart from a wall made of rusted shell casings. Not far from here, the British detonated what was then the largest man made explosion in 1915. Entering the small chapel and descending into a brick cellar, the floor is covered to a depth of several feet with more shells, evil looking shards of jagged shrapnel, and piles of German helmets, many pierced with deadly holes; just a tiny fragment of the Iron Harvest.
Other ordnance is much easier to spot, for farmers simply leave shells and grenades by the side of the road.
They’re not just left there carelessly however, although hikers have often been known to pick up ‘souvenirs’. There are so many unexploded bombs being dug up every year, that the Belgian government created a daily pick up service, the 63 strong Dienst voor Opruiming en Vernietiging van Ontploffingstuigen (DOVO), or Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company. Farmers would notify what they had found, leave their dangerous finds by the roadside, to be picked up and safely detonated at a specialist bomb disposal service in Poelkapelle.
In 2015, they collected over 100 tons of unexploded shells. A decade before over 3,000 unused German shells were found just east of Ypres.
Down in the Somme, the legacy is even worse. During the colossal barrage leading up the first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the darkest days in British history, one six gun battery alone, fired over 7,200 in just under a week. Bomb disposal experts dealing with the Iron Harvest here estimated that it will take a staggering five hundred years to make the area safe.
“Since the start of the year we’ve been called out 300 times to dispose of 25 tons of bombs”, explains Michel Colling, one of the ‘demineurs’ who work the Iron Harvest. In an average day, his team collected 73 shells and 57 assorted grenades and fuses.
In his 1988 book, ‘Aftermath’, Donovan Webster went to explore the remnants of 20th century battlefields, including the Western Front. He writes of one demineur, M.Bélot who finds one unexploded bomb;
“Shells like these, lull you to sleep. On the outside they look old. But inside” – he smiles and points to his wristwatch – “they’re still clean as a new clock. Very dangerous.
Bélot….hoists a German 105-millimetre shell the size of a fireplace log and cradles it in both hands as he heads for the truck…..he tilts it up and back in the air, and from inside comes a sloshy, swish-swish noise.
“That’s the mustard gas,” he says.
Other farmers simply pick up their deadly finds and leave them in barns. We met one farmer not far from Deville Wood who showed inside one barn an astonishing collection of old grenades, decayed rifles, rusted bayonets and countless artillery shells, neatly arranged in rows as if they were milk churns. They look rusted and harmless, but many are not. Since 1946, over an astonishing 630 people have been killed by hidden bombs.
In battlefields of Verdun – what historian Dan Carlin describes as ‘the meat grinder’ – there are still thought to be be around 12 million hidden shells. In France, the solution was simply to seal whole areas of country off, creating what became known as the ‘forbidden forests’.
But alongside the daily harvest of unexploded artillery, it is also commonplace for farmers and construction workers to unearth more gruesome discoveries. One such was on an industrial site in the village of Boezinge, just outside Ypres, where work was being done on the Ypres-Izer canal. Here in 1992 a section of the British front line was discovered, along with the remains of 155 soldiers. The trench had been dug and held by units of the 49th West Riding Division from Yorkshire in 1915, and was fiercely fought over for the next two years. The company official record stated that, “…frontline is in dreadful state. Line only held by a series of outposts disconnected from each other. Trenches mostly falling to pieces and drainage very different.” It is thought that the majority of the 155 men who were found there, died on the morning of July 6th, 1915.
When such a discovery is made the Commonwealth Graves Commission is called in to see if the remains can be identified. A team of archaeologists known as “The Diggers” then go to work to unearth and preserve the site. The trench has been left intact as it was in 1915, with sandbags, duckboards, fire-steps and loopholes. The trench system also has dugouts which in wet weather are still flooded, some reaching below ground to the depth of 30 feet. At this point of the line, the German front line trench was only 100 yards away.
The Iron Harvest carries on every year, as rusted, toxic and deadly reminders of the Great War continue to be discovered. As Rémy Deleuze, demineur explains, “to this day, the First War is a nightmare for France. It killed a generation of our men. But that wasn’t all. As you wipe those men away, you also destroy our farms and fields, you destroy our homes, everything.”
The Iron Harvest continues to remind us of the unending horrors suffered by those forced to endure the trenches, soldiers such as A.J.Cummings;
“The three of us, plastered up to our ears with glutinous mud, listened to the venomous shriek of the five-nines and looked out upon that chaotic gas poisoned sea of slime with dull hated in our hearts and a dull longing to escape.”
We recommend the excellent Salient Tours, one of the oldest and best in Ypres – http://www.salienttours.be/ The Sanctuary Wood / Hill 62 museum is also fascinating, and has semi-preserved parts of the British Front Line, run out of a local’s back garden. Dan Carlin’s superb ‘Blueprint for Armageddon’ is a must listen podcast, and we’d like to give a special mention to fellow adventurer Donovan Webster, who passed away last year. https://www.amazon.com/Aftermath-Remnants-Landmines-Warfare-Devastating/dp/067975153X