Whilst the First World War was a truly global conflict, the area of devastation on the Western Front was, compared to WWII, more restricted in size. The devastation though was much more concentrated. Each square mile had millions of shells, tons of barbed wire and ordinance pumped into it on a terrifying scale. Men and equipment quite often literally sank into the quagmire. Even after a hundred years Belgian and French farmers still reap what is termed “the Iron Harvest”. Each year tons of decaying shells, barbed wire, weapons and soldiers’ bodies are unearthed.
So, once the killing had stopped, how were the bloody, churned up, gas drenched battlefields cleaned up?
Clearing the Battlefields
The clearing up was broadly done in 3 steps, involving different people and time schedules :
- During the war and up to 1920 in some areas :
It was done by the soldiers themselves (engineers helped by Battlefield Clearance & Salvage platoons). Due to lack of available men, the French and British employed Chinese people to help them. In some operations like the Somme offensive these special platoons were ordered to “clean” the positions between reinforcements coming in. As a result bodies and equipment were dropped in the first shell hole and covered.
- Immediate Post War :
At the end of the war, the armies returned to the battlefields and tried to identify their dead. The fighting zones were divided in squares and systematically explored. They opened mass graves and regrouped temporary cemeteries into, in the case of the British Empire troops – the vast Commonwealth grave sites we see today. As the armies (at least the French ones) demobilized their men, local companies took over the works. However some of them were more interested in being paid than doing a thorough job, preferring to quickly fill up trenches without really caring about what was in these trenches. They were only charged with cleaning the soil up to 60 cm deep. Trenches & shell holes were obviously a lot deeper and a lot of bodies were missed.
Priority was then to give the farmers back their lands. It had to be quick. These lands were of high quality soil. They were the ones providing food to the french population.
The French drew up a plan to apportion the level of destruction into 4 categories :
Zone Rouge : Red Zone – Area of complete destruction
Zone Jaune : Yellow Zone – Important damage
Zone Vert : Green Zone – Area with moderate damage
Zone Bleu : Blue Zone – Area with no damage
In some areas called Zone Rouge (Red Areas), the soil was so heavily polluted that it was impossible and too costly to remove everything. Consequently the State would have to buy it and put trees on it. However many of the farmers preferred to do it themselves rather than having their land bought for a very small price.
- From the mid 1920’s up to now
– and probably for hundreds of years to come according to many estimates – farmers and construction companies are the ones which will be in charge to clean the soil. Plenty of shells are still being uncovered and even occasionally some bodies.
Even after over 100 years tons of ordinance – the “Iron Harvest” – is turned up every year as the fields are ploughed and buildings are constructed. In the fighting areas, farmers can drop these unexploded shells in specific areas where the bomb squad periodically picks them up.