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The Annual Iron Harvest of Unexploded Shells from the WWI battlefields

Ian Harvey

Perhaps not as extensively filmed as the Second World War, the First World War touched the heights of chaos and human life loss during its nearly five years of death and destruction.

The repercussions of the conflict can still be heard in the battlefield of the War, now mostly farmlands or construction sites.

One of the many reminders of the deadly war has to be the annual ‘harvest’ of barbed wire, unexploded ordnance, bullets, shrapnel’s, and other remnants of battles collected by the farmers from France and Belgium after ploughing large fields which were once the battlegrounds of some of the fiercest fighting in the region.

The harvest term in the region has become synonymous to the material left behind by the armies during the First World War, which is still found buried in fairly large quantities up and down the region, across the former West Front of the First World War.

Vickers Machinegun - Somme WW1 Photo Credit

Vickers Machinegun – Somme WW1 Photo Credit

The amount of shelling and bombing that took place during the war was on a monumental scale.

According to some estimates, one tonne of explosive material was fired for every square metre of the West front’s territory. Two thirds of these explosives ended up un-detonated and laid there, later being buried in the chaos of the war.

In Ypres, Salient alone an estimated 300 million explosives belonging to German and British forces were buried, most were duds and have not yet been discovered.

As recently as 2013 a total of 160 tonnes of munitions, including 15-inch naval gun shells, were meticulously unearthed from the regions around Ypres.

The ‘harvest of iron’. Shells are still recovered today and piled up ready for collection Photo Credit

The ‘harvest of iron’. Shells are still recovered today and piled up ready for collection Photo Credit

 

The huge shells unearthed in the so-called ‘iron harvest’ are still capable of killing or maiming people a hundreds years later

The huge shells unearthed in the so-called ‘iron harvest’ are still capable of killing or maiming people a hundreds years later

 

Belguim army bomb About 300 million of the billion projectiles launched between the British and Germans were duds and most have not been recovered

About 300 million of the billion projectiles launched between the British and Germans were duds and most have not been recovered

Since the area where these exploded shells are buried is also the area of France and Flanders considered very rich in agriculture and is highly fertile, the most of the Iron harvest takes place in the spring and early autumn season when farmers are ploughing to sow the seeds.

As this has now become a local tradition, almost all the farmers regularly (every year during their harvest) collect these unearthed munitions and line them along the boundaries of their fields. Sometimes authorities will provide collection points to these farmers to take any shells.

Despite laying dormant for decades, the shells and mines may still be active and 20 members of the Belgian army bomb disposal team have been killed since 1919

Despite laying dormant for decades, the shells and mines may still be active and 20 members of the Belgian army bomb disposal team have been killed since 1919

 

A lone soldier stands knee deep, but even these thousands of cases represent only a tiny fraction of the millions of tons of ammunition manufactured and used during the war. The volume of artillery-fire deployed against human flesh is shocking.

A lone soldier stands knee deep, but even these thousands of cases represent only a tiny fraction of the millions of tons of ammunition manufactured and used during the war. The volume of artillery-fire deployed against human flesh is shocking.

 

In 2012 160 tons of munitions were unearthed from under the soil in Ypres, from bullets to stick grenades to 15 inch naval gun shells

In 2012 160 tons of munitions were unearthed from under the soil in Ypres, from bullets to stick grenades to 15 inch naval gun shells

Some of the deadly shells developed and used in the First World War lined up by women factory workers

Some of the deadly shells developed and used in the First World War lined up by women factory workers

These unexploded shells are equally, if not more dangerous once they are buried, as now they can take people by surprise and cause considerable damage.

Despite a high rate of recovery of these unexploded shells by French Department du Deminage, the Department of mine clearance in France, which is approximately 900 tons every year; these shells have still caused considerable damage to the locals and to those who try to unearth them.

Since the end of the Second World War, a total of 630 French munition clearers have died while handing these unexploded shells.

Since the end of the First World War upwards of 260 civilians have died due to the unexploded shells suddenly exploding whereas 535 have been seriously injured.

Read another one from our First World War files:In WWI, a British prisoner of war was released from German prison camp to see his dying mother on the promise that he would return, and he did

Another dangerous aspect of these buried shells is the fact that some can contain poisonous gases, and when they corrode underground the gas is released either spoiling the soil or if near the surface endangering the lives of farmers or ordnance clearers.

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