The endless battle

The endless battle

From Verdun (France)

“It happens everyday”. Michel Thouvenin crosses his arms and looks to the barley field on his left.

“When I pass with the tractor, the plowshare continuously unearths bombs from World War I: grenades, chemical bombs, small and medium calibers. I find some of them every week”.

At 64 years and with the unassuming look of someone who had spent his life growing cabbages and potatoes, Thouvenin is definitely not the kind of man you would expect to see bustling around weapons forbidden by all international conventions. However, fortuitously, his fields sit right upon the hills where 100 years ago some of the most bloody battles of the First World War were fought. And where still today the remnants of war are a deadly threat.

“60 millions shots were fired in Verdun. Many of them are still in the wood, undetonated”

Along the entire 700 kilometers of the western front, from the beaches of the English Channel to the Swiss frontier, between the German and the Anglo-French trenches, big and small caliber guns shot explosives and toxic substances on the enemies’ emplacements. During the first mass conflict in history, chemical weapons were not yet forbidden and millions of people became victims of the toxic gasses. But the rest of that massacre has not vanished yet, and the farmers of the region know it all too well.

“It often occurs that the hunter’s dogs enter into the holes and never get out, killed by the poisonous steam that is still trapped in the subsoil – Thouvenin tells – And in the contaminated areas I cannot grow even a grain spike: the soil is dead, it is impossible to grow something in it”.

After the armistice in 1918, the French Government acquired some of the areas where the most bloody battles took place and started a wide reclaim operation on the soil, strewed with corps and millions of ammunition both exploded and not. Still today, however, wide areas of the farmland in the Great East Region hide the rest of that terrible massacre. The major danger is chemical weapons contamination, that has pushed the transalpine authorities to establish several “red zones” where access is strictly prohibited to the civilians. This is the case for the Place-à-gaz de Spincourt, a clearing in the woods where in 1928 200 thousand chemical weapons were burnt: in 2007 a study by the Mainz University detected dangerously high levels of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals in the soil. Right where for decades after the Second World War, the hunters and the foresters who in the past might have stopped by there for breakfast and to rest after a working day, now there is an barrier raised by the military authorities and a sign with the threatening message: “Stay back, soil contaminated”.

The costs and the time necessary for the reclamation are prohibitive: the site of the ammunition depository will be contaminated for thousands of years, and the unexploded bombs are simply too many to be retrieved. Le Monde estimated that only in Verdun, where an area as wide as Paris was completely destroyed, at least the 15% of the scattered artillery was never even used.

There are bombs lying silently hidden in the woods or in the fields, which in many cases still have the potential to be lethal. While many people come across the simply by chance, there are also many who go in search of these bombs. Unlike the Italian “retrievers”, those retrieving bombs on French battlefields are generally collectors and hobbyists, who comb the woods inch by inch during their free time.

Two of them agreed to meet with us outside the village of Thiaucourt in the Meurthe-et-Moselle department. They refused to reveal their identity because of their passion, as their actions even if inspired by a scientific interest, is against the law.

Walking on the ground heavily drenched by the October rain, they unearth the bombs, recognising them one by one as if they knew them all by name: “The French shot mainly 75mm ammunition, while the Germans used assault rifles and bullets of a larger caliber – the leader of the expedition tells us – But my passion is for the traditional weapons assembled right in the trenches with the available materials: those are particularly rare”.

The Vincey military museum collects many of the donations of military material. Here the curators Pascal Lener and Octave Spinazzè spend their free time classifying with passion relics from every war. “Even after the soil has been decontaminated – Lener explains – the soil still gives us back weapons and military artifacts: barbed wire and mesh fences. It is estimated that during the First World War more than 1450 millions shots were fired, 60 of which were shot in the Battle of Verdun alone”.