‘Iron harvest’ still threatens European farmers

Thousands of tonnes of unexploded ordnance, largely from the First World War, continue to be found every year

For soldiers and politicians, the destruction of the First World War ended 100 years ago, but for farmers in Europe today, it continues and will do so for centuries to come.

Four years of siege warfare left parts of France and Belgium in ruins. Some mortars, bombs, mines and other shells that should have exploded failed to do so. Now, these “duds,” as they are called, continue to threaten the lives of those who find them.

The fields of Flanders flourish with crops of wheat, beets and potatoes but below the soil is another “crop” of explosives that are still lethal. It’s estimated that from the First World War alone, more than 300 million ordnances deployed around Belgium were duds, most not yet recovered.

During the Second World War, about 1.5 million tons of bombs were dropped on Germany by British and American forces and of that, 10 percent never detonated. Every year, about 2,000 tons are found. Generally, it is thought that more debris remains from the First World War because of the swamp-like conditions of trench warfare of that period. Shells, bullets and bombs quickly sank in the mud. Now, construction work, field work and natural processes bring them back to the surface.

It’s called “the iron harvest” and is an ongoing operation to manage. Most of the iron harvest is found during spring planting and fall cultivating.

Governments have bomb disposal teams in place to remove and process found artillery. Before digging can begin, the land must be searched and cleared of unexploded ordnances. When a bomb is found, the decision is made whether to remove it to another location for deployment or deploy it onsite because it has degraded too much to move safely. Munitions disposal units use sand in their truck boxes to minimize the chances of them knocking together during transport.

Around Ypres, 160 tonnes of weapons were salvaged, including bullets, stick grenades and naval gun shells that could have destroyed an entire city block.

The work requires periodic evacuations. In 2013 a massive 4,000-pound bomb was discovered, resulting in the evacuation of 20,000 people. A 2011 drought in Germany revealed a similar sized bomb, resulting in 45,000 people being evacuated.

In spite of these efforts, injury and death still occur either in the act of deploying ordnance or to civilians who accidentally find it.

In 2014, a construction worker in Germany was killed when his power shovel struck a Second World War 1,000-pound bomb, which detonated almost immediately.

In Belgium, at least one person each year dies from accidentally deploying discovered ordnance.

“Between 15,000 and 20,000 people die every year from landmine explosions,” says Lincoln Riddle of War History Online.

These accidents have occurred to a significant number of children who find a landmine and play with it.

There is a second danger posed by war and that is poisoning. Chemical warfare has left toxic weapons in the soil. Shells containing poisonous gas remain viable and will corrode and release their gas content. Close to five percent of the shells fired during the First World War contained poisonous gas and ordnance disposal experts continue to suffer burns from mustard gas shells that were split open.

Shells are X-rayed to identify hazardous chemicals. Toxic shells are then studied under a neutron-induced gamma spectroscope to identify the chemicals underneath the metal casings. They are frozen to liquify the chemical and turned over to a civilian contractor to be destroyed.

It’s estimated that about five percent of First World War artilleries were gas weapons. At least once a week they are discovered in Belgium by the ordnance removal team.

Deteriorating debris also adds to toxic effects on the land, allowing rust, lead, mercury and zinc to seep into the soil.

In the worst case scenario, the poisons could quickly kill a human.

In less extreme situations, plants are stunted or made deadly if eaten. Governments have mapped out areas of old battlefields according to their state of toxicity in four-colour categories: blue for safe, green, yellow, and red. In France, the red zones, which are designated unfit for human habitation, still exist today.

Whether farmers are paid for turning in debris or ordnance is uncertain. At least two sources reported that farmers occasionally give away or sell their discoveries to tourists, but this practice is highly discouraged because of the danger of a live shell they thought to be safe seriously harming an unsuspecting person, whether that person is the farmer or the tourist.

Farmers routinely experience damage to equipment. The Belgian government has paid out nearly $205,000 in compensation over the past three years for damage caused to farm machinery by First World War munitions. Fortunately, they ride higher in today’s modern tractors and harm to themselves is minimized.

Probably the youngest surviving casualty of the war is Maité Roël, who was on a camping trip near Wetteren when she was eight years old and had her left leg all but severed when one of the logs the children were throwing on the campfire turned out to be a shell. Now 30, she is officially a victim of the war — “mutilée dans la guerre” — which entitles her to a monthly stipend of $1,193.25 and half-price rail tickets.

“Now collapsing underground bunkers is an increasing danger. One neighbour ended up with his tractor 30 feet down in a bunker earlier in the year. Timber beams from 1918 had given way under the weight of machinery, an increasing danger as time passes. Timber rots and tractors get larger,” said a French farmer in an interview for Rodney Magowan of Press and PR Agency.

Unexploded ordnances are found all over the world from Europe to the Pacific.

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