VERDUN: The fields and woods around Verdun, site of one of the most devastating and protracted battles of First World War, may now appear tranquil. But remnants of the war — unexploded ordnance — still pose a threat 100 years on.
The 10-month Battle of Verdun ranks among the bloodiest encounters in the Great War, its unrelenting hailstorm of ammunition killing hundreds of thousands French and German soldiers from February to December 1916.
French and German Presidents Francois Hollande and Joachim Gauck both attended commemoration ceremonies in Alsace and Liege on Sunday and yesterday to mark the war’s start and pledge Franco-German solidarity.
But in this area of northeastern France, and across the border into Belgium, the fallout from the fighting still lingers.
Farmers and hikers around Verdun say they regularly find discarded artillery shells and grenades, vestiges of the war that are still potentially lethal.
“I can’t tell you how many I find sometimes,” said Roland Dabit, a resident of the nearby hamlet of Somogneux.
“Even in the forest. How many are there in the forest? How many? Believe me, when we go mushroom-picking, I see a hundred shells,” Dabit said.
Farmer Alain Doyen says that after tilling the earth in his fields, he often finds old German shells.
“It is a bit scary sometimes because when you are in the middle of the field you don’t feel like touching it,” Doyen said. “It’s better not to leave them in the middle so I try to move them to the side.”
The bomb clearance unit from the nearby city of Metz has its hands full responding to the numerous calls from residents and collects some 40 tonnes of ammunition each year.
Every day a two-person team patrols the Verdun sector looking for shells, some 1 million of which were fired by the Germans in one of the first salvos of the conflict alone.
That heavy shelling works out to an average of six shells that fell on each square meter of earth in the area during the battle.
“If you have a million shells falling — besides all those that fell after — the turnover of the soil inevitably buried a large number of those that didn’t explode,” said Guy Momper, one of the 10 specialists in the unit.
The construction of new houses regularly reveals large quantities of shells during excavation, a delay often taken into consideration when building a new house in the sector.
“Today we need more space, we build new houses, and what happens? We stir up the earth. When you stir up the earth, you keep the legacy of this war which are the shells, the grenades and the mortars,” Momper said.
“So in this sense, the war is not over,” he added. “And I think, in the area where we are now, it will continue for 100 or 200 years.”
Although reckless inhabitants sometimes try to destroy the ammunition themselves - one local man used improvised means last month to explode a 155mm shell in the forest — Momper recommends that the bomb clearance unit be notified and the dangerous work be carried out by professionals.
Precise figures on the number of deaths due to exploded shells are hard to come by, but two experts from the Metz unit were killed in 2007 after a shell they were transporting detonated.
Momper said that given the number of munitions that remain in the area and are yet to be discovered, “it’s almost impossible that nothing will happen.”
“Someone said once, ‘the bomb does its own thing’. In normal conditions if it’s in a certain position, you can carry it around taking a number of precautions,” he said. “You might be able to carry a million of them but the next one might explode.”