An Endless War

The market of war material's detection

In Belgium, minesweepers intervention sometimes seems too slow to some, especially since the SEDEE (Service of Removal and Destruction of Explosives machinery) practice no longer detecting. "In order not to unfairly compete with companies that offer these services," says one of the minesweepers. 

"Instead of a lack of resources and personnel, said meanwhile Erwin Van Humbeeck, who left the SEDEE in 2000 and became manager of, one of the 3 Belgian companies specialized in the detection, identification and securing of war material. "In the Netherlands, to do work on a former war zone, the legislation requires to carry out a historical study to determine the risk of finding shells on the ground. The administration provides for it all its archives, including Dutch deminers data , and if the clearance is required, it is performed by certified firms. None of this exists in Belgium ", laments Erwin Van Humbeeck, admitting that his company has a real market, in areas affected by the front ... Bomb performs about 60 projects a year, often on industrial areas, but sometimes also for individuals. Although the Flemish legislation imposes archaeological survey than in large projects in some municipalities like Ypres this precaution is also recommended for small sites. This work is done by private archaeological firms, which often use shell companies detection to secure their site quickly, "We do not have the right to clear, but we have the expertise and are insured for identify shells and place them in a container until the SEDEE not come take them away ... "

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Munitions of war, a heavy legacy

To the west of Europe, World War focused for 4 years along a continuous line front 700 kilometers. This concentration of weapon, unique in history, has polluted the soil in a sustainable manner. "It is estimated that the number 1455.000.000 shells were fired at the front line," said Lt. Bert Van Huyse, member of  SEDEE (Abduction Service and Construction Destruction of Explosives) in Poelkapelle. "30 to 40% of them did not explode. And 4.5% of those shells are toxic, but this figure is probably higher because it is based on the statements of the English, who until late 1950, said they had not used shells toxic. »

In Belgium and France, the drainage work munitions still present on the battlefield has not stopped since the 1918 Armistice Each year, the Belgian demining services (300 people, half of deminers, distributed among the units Meerdaal, Zeebrugge and Poelkapelle) remove 200 to 250 tons of ammunition from the two world wars. The unit of Poelkapelle, in the heart of West Flanders, has become an expert in the recovery and treatment of toxic shells. Before 1972, the shells that seemed doubtful were cast in concrete and buried in the Bay of Biscay. A practice that ended the Oslo Convention in 1972. After a final emergency release, in 1980, some 27,000 shells were stored until the installation of Poelkapelle in dismantling center in 1998 and its entry into operation in 2000. Equipped with identification tools (X-rays and gamma spectrometry) and dismantling tailored to different types of shells to respect both personnel safety and environmental standards, the center of Poelkapelle is exemplified by our French neighbors ...


"In France, every year, demining agencies collect 500 to 800 tonnes of old ammunition," said Robin Hood. The French association released in August 2012 a new inventory discovered war waste beginning to the end of 2008 2011 in the seven regions in the north and east of France by the wars of 1870, 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 ... This inventory conducted on the basis of publications in the regional press, press releases prefectures and technical literature is not exhaustive, but the 566 discoveries recounted (each of which sometimes involves several tens of ammunition) are sufficient for Robin Hood believes that the "sum of discoveries and difficulties related to the management of old munitions reveals insufficient human, financial and technical resources" to manage this problem ... "In the northern part of France, munitions discovered by certain professions such as Farmers are so numerous and routine they are grouped into long way pending the tour deminers, says Robin Hood. Ammunition are also regularly brought in dumpsters metal waste collection, showing the lack of information towards the population. Students bring back old munitions to illustrate the History course, causing the evacuation of schools and proves that here too the information is insufficient. "But what requires the association is not only a better preventive information of the population. It also regrets the lack of adequate facilities for dismantling: "Explosive ordnance are voluntarily exploded in installations that are not subject to the regulation of Classified Installations for Environmental Protection. Chemical munitions ordnance are open in furnaces that release toxic substances into the atmosphere. Their impact on soil and their impacts on flora and fauna are not sought or considered. Munitions that are not triggered are stored for several years in the military camp Suippes in the Marne, pending the opening of a specialized factory always delayed, but prescribed by the Convention on the destruction of chemical weapons. The explosive munitions remaining buried in the ground release more polluting elements as that the casing degrades under the effect of the corrosion. »

For Henry Bélot, a retired miner, editor of Deminest, quarterly of the Eastern Lorraine deminers, it is unrealistic to think of a quick large scale clean-up: "each munition slowly degrading in the soil is a source of heavy metal pollution and other toxic. But in the current state of technology, only human activities allow the discovery of a maximum ordnance. The possibilities of magnetic detection are too limited, not to mention its cost and its slowness ... "

Yet voices raised to an overall assessment of contaminated sites is carried out so that we can at least clean up most affected. A publication in 2007 by German scientists Johannes Preuss and Tobias Bausinger, from the Gutenberg University of Mainz, made much attention at the time ... This study revealed that a site Spincourt Forest, north -is Verdun 200,000 chemical shells incinerated in 1928 have polluted the soil of intense and sustainable: those conducted by scientists in the area of 70 m black and private land diameter of vegetation, revealed highly rates high levels of arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals. The "Place à Gaz" site inherited its name from this historical episode long forgotten. Since then, the National Forestry Office closed the area and placed a sign prohibiting access. The prefect of the Meuse officially took an order prohibiting access on the 3 September 2012.


"A request for funding was made by the prefecture at regional level to a state study of media interpretation and analysis of possible remediation solutions to achieve a management plan," adds André Hopfner, director of the National Forestry Office of Verdun. Difficult against whether staff who regularly occupied a forest hut on the site could benefit from closer monitoring health ... "Chronic exposure to arsenic is a recognized risk factor for cancer, says Tobias Bausinger. Moreover, it is not certain that pollution has not spread beyond the marked perimeter, and has reached the water from the basement percolation ... "Tobias Bausinger believes that the case of La Place gases is not isolated. The scientist was able to isolate a comparable site in the Ypres area in the middle of a cornfield ...


In Belgium, a single soil pollution by waste research of the Great War was published in 2008 by the University of Ghent (UGent). "Our studies have shown that World War I was probably responsible for a regional increase concentrations of Cu, Zn and Pb, but without that we can consider these soils as contaminated as the permitted concentration thresholds as standard are not exceeded, says Professor Marc Van Meirvenne (Ghent University). The phenomenon is now recognized, but not as a threat to public health. "The study does not mention arsenic, although Professor Van Meirvenne has had contact with Tobias Bausinger and read his 2005 study published in the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. "There are no plans at this time we do further studies on this subject. "Concludes Professor Van Meirvenne. At the federal level as at the regional level, nobody seems to worry about pollution that may contaminate the food grown on the former front line. Yet, Poelkapelle, some miners themselves are surprised to see, in a field bordering the military installations, back in times of plowing, the famous toxic gas cylinders used to fill shells Clark of the First World War ...

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"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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The ecological resilience of the battlefields

The concept of resilience used by psychologist Boris Cyrulnik to describe the ability of man to cope with adversity use is also common among naturalists when applied to ecosystems. The landscapes of the Great War also underwent this “painful rebirth”…

All the ravage zones did not suffer the same lot after the war. Some were returned to agriculture at the expense of important works of sanitation, levelling and filling in. On the other hand, some were assigned to either remembrance or silviculture, and sometimes to both functions at the same time.

The national forest of Verdun is an example of this policy. If this 10.000 hectares forest is well known for its rich biodiversity today, this is thanks to decisions made after the war. The French Government bought at that time an area of 120 000 hectares of land lost for agriculture known as the Red Zone. The nine ‘lost’ villages are part of it. 300.000 soldiers died there and 80.000 remain unfound… Jean-Paul Amat, Professor of biogeography at the University Paris IV Sorbonne explains: “After long debates, the decision was made to turn the whole region into a sanctuary by covering it with trees.” Afforestation begins in 1929. Jean-Paul Amat: “At that time, hardwood was considered as high-quality wood, unable to heal places totally destroyed by war. So softwood was planted”. This lasted until 1974 when the Forest National Office (ONF) decided to change to broadleaf trees. Despite this situation, the fauna and flora developed in a very surprising manner on this territory remote from most human activities.

Around the Douaumont ossuary, large lawned parks are carefully mown to unveil the scars of the Great War for the visitors. In the springtime, orchids bloom here and there. Jacques Weimerskirsh, member of the French Society of orchidophily explains: “What is remarkable here, is that dry environment orchids are found right next to wet habitat ones.” The battlefields have turned into an area of research for the naturalists revealing some botanical curiosities. Georges Parent, a Belgian botanist, made many inventories of the flora around Verdun and discovered a few obsidional? plants - plants that were brought there because of the war – like the Blue-eyed-grass (Sisyrinchium bermudianum) that came from America along with the fodder for the horses…

The vegetation has reasserted itself all around the shell holes and trenches, but one cannot forget that the soil is still heavily polluted by the remains of war. Little is known of the impact of their degradation on plants and animals. In his studies on the zone of Verdun, Georges-Henri Parent noted colour irregularities for some flowers but was not able to make the link with mutagenic effects of the Yperite, or mustard gas. He also underlined the extinction of salamanders in the Red Zone around Verdun.

The herpetofauna of the region, which had been deeply affected by the WW1, seem however to settle in the area again. 18 species of amphibian and reptiles, such as the alpine newt or the yellow-bellied toad, live peacefully next to each other on the battlefields

The yellow-bellied toad survived scarcely during the fights in a few refuge habitats such as shell holes where the clay and marl kept the water in little ponds. “It is a very rare species, protected at European level - says Eric Bonnaire, officer of the ONF. The yellow-bellied toads also take advantage of the ruts left by the forestry machines, but we have to be very careful not to run over them.”

Other scars left by the conflict, the fortifications and tunnels of the region shelter 17 species of bats. Forts are interesting as substitute environments for bats because temperatures are very similar to caves’” explains Matthieu Gaillard, member of the Commission for the protection of Water, local Heritage, Environment, Subsoil and Chiroptera of Lorraine. The greater horseshoe bat is very typical of the Verdun battlefields. Very rare in Belgium, Luxemburg or Germany, this species seem to have found here the limits of its range of distribution. The large amounts of bats found in Verdun are due not only to the many shelters in the surroundings, but also to the availability of food… The national forest of Verdun, which is also a Natura 2000 site, offers an exceptional living environment for the bats. “But bats also have to face illegal visitors that are not always well-intentioned,” notes Matthieu Gaillard, while showing a reinforced door supposed to protect bats, but several time forced open by unwelcome visitors…

War relic hunting is a recognized fact and combining Remembrance tourism and nature preservation is a major challenge. An attempt to list the forest of Verdun as a natural park may have failed; another application is awaiting an answer from the ONF to receive the label “Forêt d’exception” (exceptional forest).

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Poppy and cornflower, flowers of remembrance  

Poppies and cornflowers have become the symbols of the 1914-1918 war. In the Commonwealth, poppies stand for soldiers who died at war. This association goes back a long time. During the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century, the link between poppies and battlefields had already been made…But how do the fields destroyed by the fighting get carpeted by those blood red flowers?

The poppy seed is not very demanding, it only needs a calcareous and ploughed soil. Long lasting, it can remain buried for years with no water and keep its germinating power, sprouting as soon as it is brought to the bare surface by tilling of the soil. No surprise it bloomed on the devastated battlefields of WW1…

Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian soldier and surgeon, first noticed the relationship between poppies and battlefields. When a friend of his was killed by a German shell in Ypres and buried in a rudimentary grave topped with a simple wood cross, he was struck by the wild poppies sprouting between the rows of graves. This phenomenon was immortalized in his famous poem “In Flanders Fields”, published on December 8, 1915.

Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian soldier and surgeon, first noticed the relationship between poppies and battlefields. When a friend of his was killed by a German shell in Ypres and buried in a rudimentary grave topped with a simple wood cross, he was struck by the wild poppies sprouting between the rows of graves. This phenomenon was immortalized in his famous poem “In Flanders Fields”, published on December 8, 1915.


In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row”

Three years later, while on duty in the YMCA canteen of New York, Moina Michael began to wear red poppies in the memory of millions of soldiers who gave their lives on the battlefields. While visiting the USA in 1920, a French lady named Madame Guérin discovered this custom and decided, back in France, that hand-made poppies could be sold as a way of raising money for the needy children in the devastated regions of the country.



In November 1921, the first artificial poppies were distributed in Canada. Since then, the Poppy became the emblem of Sacrifice and Remembrance of the First World War. Armistice Day, or 11th of November is also known as Poppy Day.

Because of its colour reminding the uniforms of the “Poilus”, the cornflower, also present on the battlefields, symbolises in France the sacrifice of soldiers during WW1. Actually, this flower was adopted as symbol by the French Poilus themselves. In 1915, whereas the veterans still carried the red madder pants, the younger recruits were dressed in the new blue French uniform. They were called the "Bleuets” (French for cornflower, but also newbie).

2 pages from Renefer's "Carnet de Poilu" (Albin Michel eds.)
2 pages from Renefer's "Carnet de Poilu" (Albin Michel eds.)

But just like the British Poppy, the Cornflower only became a Remembrance flower after the war. Suzanne Lenhardt, nurse at the military hospital of the “Invalides” and widow of a Captain of the Colonial Infantry killed in 1915, and Charlotte Malleterre, daughter of General Léon Niox and spouse of General Gabriel Malleterre, both touched by the sufferings of the maimed they took care of, understood the necessity to help them play an active role in Society…


They decided to organise workshops where maimed soldiers manufactured cornflowers with petals made out of fabric and stamens out of newsprint. Those flowers were sold on many occasions, and the income of this activity gave the men some autonomy. Cornflower became the symbol of reintegration through work.


Although this tradition is slowly fading since the sixties, the French Cornflower is still sold during the commemorations of May 8 and November 11, by the volunteers of “L’Oeuvre Nationale du Bleuet de France”, a charity organisation supervised by the “Office national des anciens combattants et victimes de guerre”. Its main goal is still to collect money to finance social charity to support not only former servicemen and widows of war, but also soldiers wounded during peacekeeping operations and victims of terrorism.

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Remembrance and nature on the paths of the Great War

The forest of Verdun is not the only historical site that also became natural heritage. Lots of other interesting places are found all along the frontline: the Delville wood near Albert, the wood of Beaumont-Hamel, the National Forest of Vauclair, not far from the Chemin des Dames, the park and forest of Vimy, Thiaucourt, Montfaucon in Argonne, Hartmannsvillerkopf in Alsace….

The Fort of Hollogne, photo IML.
The Fort of Hollogne, photo IML.

The situation is slightly different in Belgium where the decision was made not to create cordoned areas. In Wallonia, the fortified positions of Liège and Namur, which surrendered in August 1914, are among the few memorial sites of the Great War. Like in Verdun, they sometimes shelter bats. Luc Malchair is a naturalist, owner of the site and member of the organisation maintaining the fort of Hollogne-aux-Pierres: “Unfortunately, populations of bats are not as large as in Verdun”. Actually, it takes more than just a shelter to attract wildlife: the quality of its surrounding is important too. And Hollogne is beset by roads, highways and runways of the neighbouring airport of Bierset… “When the airport hadn’t reached its present traffic density, this 0.9 hectare of land was a sheltering place for many species like the Natterjack toad or lizards… But with 100 tons of kerosene burnt every night, the biodiversity is collapsing, even here. It’s still a bit of a safe haven, but in no way could you call it a refuge habitat for wildlife (à verifier, je ne suis pas certain de comprendre le français). There will be no extension of what is left. This being said, we are very happy to host the common Kestrel every year and a brood of barn owls… Nature is still holding on!” The Walloon forts of the Great War do however shelter interesting species such as groups of drone flies (order of diptera) and butterflies like the European peacock or the Herald (Scoliopterix libatrix).

In Flanders, the fortresses of the Antwerp belt seem better off. The winter inventories have counted up to 5,000 bats for the 16 forts, approximately half of the population hibernating in Flanders. Some ten different species can be found in these fortresses, the most common being Daubenton’s bat (40%), Whiskered bat and Brandt’s bat (25%) and Natterer’s bat (17%).

Besides the forts, other areas of wartime heritage play an ecological role. In the Westhoek for example, land is mostly urbanised or dedicated to agriculture. But the areas preserved for memory purposes are often unsuspected islands of biodiversity. Polygon wood, Hill 60, the provincial domain of Palingbeek or the Mount Kemmel leave us awestruck by the torments these places had to endure as well by their capacity to overcome them. 

Piet Chielens, photo IML
Piet Chielens, photo IML

Piet Chielens, coordinator of “In Flanders Fields Museum” explains: “At the foot of Mount Kemmel, you can see trees with 3 to 5 trunks: they are probably offspring of trees levelled during the war. We have made a call for students to do a thesis on how nature evolved on the battlefields of the region, but so far, no one has seized the opportunity”.

For Piet Chielens, what is at stake today, is the preservation of the Great War landscapes : “Near the Ypres salient, you can still get an idea of what the frontline was like between the first gas attack and the 3d battle of Ypres : 5 or 6 meadows remain, that were never deeply ploughed. They are of high archaeological interest. These sloping meadows remained untouched because they were of little value for the farmers. The local authorities should get involved in the preservation of half a circle open around the city, by forbidding any construction and any change in the status of these fields”.

This wish could have been speed up with the project of inclusion of the landscapes and memorial sites of the Great War in the UNESCO World Heritage list. This project, where Belgium and 13 French Department were associated was led by the non-profit organisation “Paysages et Sites de la Mémoire de la Grande Guerre” (Heritage Landscapes and Memorials of the Great War). They hoped to see French and Belgian sites included in the UNESCO list by 2014. Unfortunately, this project was abandoned. The association only defends today the classification of funeral and memorial sites in the Great War. Preserving some of these war landscapes yet remains an important issue. “This war has disrupted the social relations and completely changed the way we see the world, says Piet Chielens: care for human rights arose after the First World War, and the European Union, by far the most exciting project of the last fifty years, has seen the light because of the two wars - and we the second occurred mainly because the first one had been ended in the wrong way. We have to preserve these landscapes because they are the last witnesses and guardians of thoughts and ideas of this time.”

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Connections between History, biodiversity and landscapes

In his book from 2002, “History of landscape, economical stakes, aesthetics and ethics”, Gérard Tiné states that: “There is no landscape without Man. That does not mean that Man actually shapes Nature but that, just by looking at an area, he gives it a personal reading, with his underlying values, practical interests, strategic stakes and aesthetic criteria.

Panorama de l'ouvrage de Froideterre, Verdun, photo Joël Leclercq
Panorama de l'ouvrage de Froideterre, Verdun, photo Joël Leclercq

An artist and architect, Gérard Tiné adds that, in his opinion, it is not a mere question of agriculture, but of Culture. “In the Western World, the basis of this notion of landscape lies in the vantage point of military strategists, followed by the “window on the world” of painters.” The author also quotes the geographer Yves Lacoste: “On relatively delimited areas, the most beautiful of the many scenic views is almost always the one with the best vantage point…” The connection between landscapes and human history cannot be dismissed. The purpose of this work is to show the many forms these connections can take and the landscapes they expose us to.

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In Flander’s mud, with the minesweepers

The evacuation of munitions still present on the battlefield has not stopped, since 1918. Each year, the Belgian demining services (SEDEE) remove 200 to 250 tons of munitions from the two world wars. The unit of Poelkapelle, in the heart of the former conflict zone, has become an expert in the recovery and treatment of toxic shells. The dismantling center took office in 2000. It provides identification tools (X-rays and gamma spectrometry), and dismantling tailored to different types of shells to respect both personnel safety and environmental standards.

"The shells exposed in the ground are fewer with time, finds a deminer Service Abduction and Explosives Destruction machinery (SEDEE) Poelkapelle. The biggest sank to 5 or 6 meters deep, or they not only tend to rise over time, but the machines used to work the soil will become deeper. "The SEDEE receives about 3250 collection requests per year, a figure that does not decrease. On this day of October where we followed a demining team, their schedule included the removal of nine shells from the First World War, one of which can still be charged, found in a food company in the Mouscron region in the middle of a pile of potatoes. "It is routine in the region, says a member of the team.

Unfortunately, the people who live here are used to it. But this habit creates a risk ... "Later in the day, the miners will collect 14 shells posed by a farmer on the edge of the road to his small farm Westhoek ... To pick them up, minesweepers must wait a formal request made by the local police and sent to the Staff of Meerdaal. Sometimes the SEDEE deminers are facing a legal impossibility to remediate land: "At 100 meters from the ammunition depot of Dadizele, discovered in 2004 with 70 tons of ammunition have since been dismantled, we know that it's remaining 100 T of ammunition, but the owner does not want them removed. Only a judge may require that ... "says a minesweeper. Other deposits on private land pose the same type of problem.


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