The fate of battlefields in the aftermath of war

Many documents describe the changes undergone by landscapes and nature on the front. Compared to maimed soldiers, stories often centre on trees. However, in most written material dealing with the reconstruction of the country, the damages suffered by the forests are hardly ever mentioned.

According to Pierre-Alain Tallier, researcher on the history of forests at ULB-IGEAT University and archivist at the Archives of the State, “Belgian forests have shrunk by some 22,000 hectares (55,000 acres) during the war because of the damages caused by the fights, and the overexploitation by the Germans for military or commercial purposes”. Some of the destroyed woods were gone for ever. The annexation of the districts of Eupen-Malmedy was a compensation for the destruction of Belgian forests caused by the fights and brought 33,000 hectares (81,000 acres) of forest back to Belgium.

In Flanders, the woods of Mount Kemmel, of the Polygone, and of Houthulst were among the few to be replanted. In Wallonia, forests like the one of Neufchâteau were completely transformed, the destroyed broadleaf trees being replaced by softwood. But the authorities post-war concerns were focused on the reinstatement of agricultural land. Numerous trials were made as soon as 1919. The fertility of the ravaged soils is questioned and a complete reforestation of the whole area is temporarily considered. But during debates in the Chamber of Representatives, the Minister of Agriculture, Ruzette, assures: “Despite what pessimists could think, the devastated area will be for the most part – approximately 90,000 hectares (over 222,000 acres) – suitable for agriculture again.” Re-forestation is only considered for some 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres), because the price of rehabilitation will exceed the possible value retrieved. In this line of thought, the Law of November 15, 1919 will provide various plans to restore the soils in a defined area of devastated lands…

In France, all battlefields would not suffer the same fate. The lands of Artois and Picardy were for the most part returned to farming, but in the eastern part of the country, the State classified large areas as “Red Zone” and purchased the land to make it unavailable to agriculture.

For Jean-Paul Amat, Professor of Biogeography at the University Paris IV-Sorbone, this difference in allocation of the devastated areas is due mainly to the attitude of the populations towards their land: “The rich agro-industrial world of large cereal and beetroot producers of the North, through the voice of their representatives in the Chamber, had made it clear already during the war, that they would restore their land by themselves after the conflict. On the other side, on the eastern part of the country, where small farmers used to walk in clogs to go and take care of their 3 hectares of land on the plateau of Lorraine, many villages never saw their population come back after the war”.

Decisions made in the aftermath of war would modify the landscape and also greatly impact the economic development of these regions. In today’s Westhoek, in Flanders, the intensive agriculture almost conceals the devastation of WW1, but in Verdun, the 10,000 hectares of national forest perpetuates the memory of the battlefield, memory tourism being one of the scarce economic resources of the region.


But everywhere in those areas, another legacy remains deep into the ground: a legacy we’d prefer to turn a blind eye to: unexploded ordnance and weapons dumps…

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