"Country of scrap metal and bone": how the Belgian population participated in the remediation of soil

In his book "Land van schroot in knoken" (Ed. Davidsfond, 2011), John Desreumaux describes how the population back on the devastated lands of Belgium, will participate in the soil remediation. Here are some highlights,  identified for you, in this book in Dutch.

"Both on the front and rear of the front, the residents believed that the war material laying on the ground for months could be picked up and carried away. They found to their cost that they were considered as thieves by the police and punished for these pickups. In Belgium, ownerless property belonged to the state: when the Armistice, indeed, the allies had agreed that each would keep everything the enemy had left on his fighting area. They tried to inform the public that they had to leave war material where it was."

"An exception was made for farmers. All the collected material, except for railway rails and unexploded shells and grenades, remained the property of the one who did the restoration work, or the one who was doing the work on its area or field he rented. This rule was valid for the municipalities of Elverdinghe, Vlamertighe, Boesinghe Dickebusch, Kemmel, Dranouter, Nieuwkerke, Ploegsteert Wytschaete, Meessen, Waesten (but not Poperinge or other non-listed municipalities). However, these instructions have been followed shortly by the people who continued to collect metal objects that could sell at good prices. The front workers were the first affected: they took the materials. In June 1920, a check on the train from Ypres to Kortrijk uncovered an arsenal. The farmers did not pay these workers: the metal away gave them a good salary. (...) In the spring of 1922, many families lived on waste of war, in a real game of cat and mouse with the police ..."


A poster about the danger of explosives
A poster about the danger of explosives

In the years that followed, speech was changed: instead of prohibiting, it communicated to the danger constituted by unexploded munitions. In fact, these munitions were a real problem, dismantling solutions being not yet developed. In 1926, more than ten million kg of scrap iron had passed through the Zonnebeke station. Toxic shells were stored at Polygon Wood. In April 1923, the population of Zonnebeke complained: residents were invaded by poison gas emanating from shells that were detonated on site to dismantle ...


Between Armistice Day in 1918 and 2008, there were, in Belgium, 358 deaths and 535 injured people, for a total of 893 victims of war remains. Victims were sometimes very young: 143 children were involved in 92 explosions, and 19 have died. The last fatal accident involving a child took place April 13, 1951.


John Desreumaux identified the causes of accidents caused by waste from the Great War since the armistice of 1918:

  • 189 Case of explosions or 31.5% of the explosions occur during direct contact but have no precise explanation
  • 36 Explosions occurred during children's games
  • 76 Explosions occurred during the cleaning of debris on the front
  • 75 Explosions occurred during manual work 13 explosions were triggered during plowing and other work in the field
  • 128 Explosions are caused by risk-taking by collectors
  • 8 Explosions finally arrived by cutting firewood
  • In other cases, the contact with the fire that caused the explosion of ammunition:
  • 33 Hand grenades simply exploded under the effect of heat from hands
  • 19 Explosions have occurred during the dismantling of shelters and bunkers, due to the effect of fire on the powder
  • 9 Explosions occurred during a fire in the countryside 13 cases are explained by the use of firewood or charcoal from the front.

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