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Harvest of iron still haunts farmers

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  • There are enough munitions buried in Europe’s farmland to keep the demolition squads busy for several 100 years — and maybe the next 1,000. Death in the furrows was a reality 100 years ago, and periodically, still is today.

Everyone remembers 1991 — 36 farmers were blown apart. Years can pass without a farmer being killed, but the roulette chamber is always revolving toward the inevitable.

From 1914-1918, over 1 billion shells rained down on World War I battlefields, much of that on European farmland in France and Belgium. With a dud rate of 20 percent to 25 percent, hundreds of millions of shells are still buried today. Grenades, bombs, shrapnel shells and poison gas canisters — all wait patiently 100 years on.

After the war, the killing fields were pitted with live shells — absolutely saturated. France sealed away 15 million acres, slammed the proverbial door and hung a “do not enter” sign. Much of that land remains cordoned off and forbidden to this day; the realm of demolition experts and an occasional lunatic poking about for souvenirs.

But on acreage that was never zoned off or has been reclaimed, farm life goes on. Every spring, as farmers prepare their fields, rains bring a metallic shine. Most of the gleam is from spent shrapnel (the most common shell fired during World War I), but without fail, live rounds are exposed. The farmers either contact special demolition squads, or drag the shells to the edge of fields for collection later. It’s not unusual for a farmyard to have stacks of shells awaiting pick-up by French “demineur” bomb-disposal teams, specially trained to handle live rounds.

From fist-sized stick grenades, to round aerial bombs, to shells as thick as a thigh, the bomb-disposal squads handle thousands of tons per year. And with a high cost. Hundreds of demineurs have been killed since the squad was created just after World War II.

It’s not just bombs and shrapnel rounds that remain lethal; poison gas shells abound. By 1917, artillery shells were being used to deliver poison gas, and the rounds were color-coded to mark them as toxic. But 100 years later, the color has often rusted away, with nothing to distinguish the shells except for a tell-tale noise they make when picked up. The corroded gas shells still contain toxic liquid and make a swishing sound when jostled. The liquid was meant to vaporize into gas upon explosion of the shell.

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