A Time to Remember: The Iron Harvest

holly-fisher-1BY HOLLY FISHER
Staff  Writer, UAS Whalesong

In the last few articles I have spoken often of the influence of World War I on our modern world. Its legacy continues to come up with startling regularity no matter how much time passes. Nowhere is this as painfully obvious as in France and Belgium where the Western Front mutilated the landscape. The “Iron Harvest” and the numerous “Zone Rouge” (red zone) areas stand as testament to the long lasting devastation caused by the ingenuity of war.

For four years the armies of the Allied and Central powers poured millions of tons of artillery shells across the lines, strung out hundreds of miles worth of barbed wire, and left bodies and equipment strewn everywhere throughout no man’s land. Some 20%-30% percent of all fired shells and mortars failed to detonate, pock-marking the land with still more dormant threats. When the war ended the soldiers and major pieces of equipment and supplies departed, but the refuse of war was left where it had fallen. It was said that when work began on restoring the land, what they found was an even mix of metal war parts, blasted earth, and human remains.

The “Zone Rouge” (red zone) is a series of unconnected spots of land where the ordinance remains and chemical contamination is so high that it is unfit for any kind of human usage. Right after the war, the French government removed any people living in direct proximity to the former frontlines, officially deeming them too devastated to clean. Some 460 miles of territory was quarantined for being contaminated with huge quantities of human and animal remains, and filled with millions of tons of unexploded munitions. The areas were left to return to nature. It was hoped that time would lessen the danger posed by war refuse. Entirely new divisions called the Department du Deminage (Department of Mine Clearance) and the Belgian Explosive Ordnance Disposal were developed in 1945 and 1919 respectively to return the land to general use. With the annual removal of upwards of 900 tons of war material, the isolated territory slowly shrank to about 65 miles. Areas outside of these strictly forbidden spots began to see recreational use again, mainly by gamekeepers and foresters.

However, in 2004, German scientists discovered that certain areas within the zones had soil and water arsenic counts of up to 17% – hundreds or even thousands of times above acceptable limits. Further research revealed saturations of lead, mercury, chlorine, various acids, and weaponized gaseous agents. Grenades, mortars, mines, and gas shells pose an ongoing risk of further chemical leakage as well as the standing threat of delayed detonation. Shrapnel left over from the many rounds that did explode have further contaminated the soil with non-degradable lead, mercury, and zinc which will continue to seep out. The government officially sealed off all access to the zones rouges in 2012, forbidding civilian use of any kind.

Outside of the red zones themselves, farmers and landowners continue to battle with the remnants left by the war. Every plowing season there is a standing risk of hitting live ordinance and suffering serious injury or death. To combat this threat, some tractors are designed with armor plating along the underside to help protect the farmers from explosions. Along the edges of fields are cages, posts, or other marked places were shells and bombs are placed for professional removal. The spring season when so many of these items are turned up is known as the Iron Harvest. Depending on location, removal and disposal duty is handled by either the army or one of the specialized removal units. The officers make continuous driving rounds to collect the refuse at field edges, and receive hundreds of calls per year for special removal. Combined, these groups remove hundreds of tons of munitions every year from small villages and towns across the countryside. However, rather than shrinking with the passage of time, the Harvests are growing as modern farming and construction techniques reach new depths.

The farmers and landowners who have been born and raised in these areas are very versed in the types of weapons and how to handle them. They can identify which bombs still have fuses and are most dangerous, the type of shell corrosion that indicates a gas round which can burn skin on contact, and how to tell which country each item came from. Numerous small villages boast homemade museums filled with non-lethal artifacts that have been found both by workers and tourists. Bullet casings, grenade fragments, warped rifles, and even tank parts have found their way out of the dirt and onto the shelves. Ghost villages (those that were destroyed in the war or abandoned in the aftermath), memorial sites and trails, and live neighboring villages seek to promote the military history of the land. Many view these as ways to memorialize the events and to remember all who fell on their land decades before they were born.

Every year, despite precautions, the Iron Harvest continues to cause deaths and maimings to those who live and work on the former battlefields. While World War II added some to the damage total, the majority of what turns up is still solidly linked to The Great War. As research continues, the Zone Rouge has been compared to Chernobyl in terms of ecological damage and poisonous outside effects. Official estimates of the amount of work still to be done puts the completion of total cleanup and restoration 300-700 years in the future. Others argue that the sheer amount of chemical and refuse scarring will make it impossible to ever fully recover the once-fertile lands.

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