Munitions still being collected in fields

Article and photos by Doug Slowski

During World War I an estimated one ton of explosives was fired for every square meter of territory on the Western front. As many as one in every three shells fired did not detonate. In the Ypres Salient, an estimated 300 million projectiles that the British and the German forces fired at each other during World War I were duds, and most of them have not been recovered. 

In 2013, 160 tons of munitions, from bullets to 15 inch naval gun shells, were unearthed from the areas around Ypres.

Unexploded weapons—in the form of shells, bullets, and grenades—buried themselves on impact or were otherwise quickly swallowed in the mud. As time passes, construction work, field plowing, and natural processes bring the rusting shells to the surface. Most of the iron harvest is found during the spring planting and autumn plowing as the region of northern France and Flanders are rich agricultural areas. Farmers collect the munitions and place them along the boundaries of fields or other collection points for authorities.

In Belgium, iron harvest discovered by farmers is carefully placed around field edges, or in gaps in telegraph poles, where it is regularly collected by the Belgian army for disposal by controlled explosion at a specialist center in Poelkapelle. The depot was built after ocean dumping of shells stopped in 1980. Once extracted by the army, the gas chemicals are burned and destroyed at high temperatures at specialized facilities and the explosives detonated.

After a century of work, ordnance disposal experts are still laboring amid the ruins of the Western Front, identifying and safely disposing of explosives. Each year, they dig up 900 tons of explosive devices in France and another 200 tons in Belgium.

Farmers have to have their crops tested for toxicity before they can sell them. Every year, they find more munitions beneath their fields, known as the iron harvest. In most cases, these are retrieved intact and taken to official dumping grounds. Sometimes a shell goes off and a farmer loses his tractor or just gets away with his life.

There were two problems – one obvious, the other more insidious.

The first was the unexploded munitions. Many of the explosives used during the war hadn’t gone off but still lay in wait, ready to kill or maim the unwary. In some cases, as when mines were laid, this was a deliberate feature of the weapon, but one the military leaders were willing to accept if it helped them win the war. In other cases, it was accidental, the result of faulty shells and grenades. Just because a munition didn’t go off when it was fired didn’t mean it couldn’t still explode years later.

The second problem was poisoning. Both sides used chemical weapons in the war, and this use left toxic residues in the soil. The rusting remains of buried battlefield debris added to the toxicity of the land, as lead, mercury, and zinc started to seep into the soil. In the worst cases, the poisons could quickly kill a human being. Even in less extreme areas, they could prevent plants from growing or make the crops deadly if eaten.