The First World War was one of the most devastating conflicts in human history.
When the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, the fighting might have stopped, but the impact of the war continued.
Today, over a century after the war concluded, it can still be felt. Not in the third or fourth-order geopolitical ramifications but in the literal ground where the people of Belgium and France live and work.
Learn more about Zone Rouge, the Iron Harvest, and the lingering effects of the First World War on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The First World War was, at that time, the most horrific war that humanity had ever fought. After its conclusion, it was simply known as The Great War because there was nothing else that could adequately describe it.
It wasn’t just that the war took a terrific human toll, although it did. It was that the war was also qualitatively different than every other war that had come before it.
Previous wars involved soldiers lining up against each other on a field of battle. Even with the development of guns and cannons, this was basically how war was fought through the 19th century, as can be seen in the Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War.
However, the Great War was different. There were new weapons that had never been used in combat before. Industrial manufacturing allowed for the large-scale creation of weapons and munitions.
To give you an idea of just how different World War One was, the number of artillery rounds fired in just the first day of the Battle of Verdun by just the Germans was over a million. Before the Battle of Messines, the British fired 3.5 million rounds.
These million round days were not the exception. In trying to find an estimate of the total number of shells fired during the war, I’ve seen estimates that ranged from 900 million to as many as 1.75 billion.
On the western front, there was an estimated one metric ton of explosives fired for every square meter of territory.
Not only were there more artillery rounds fired, orders of magnitude more than were ever fired in every other war in history combined, but the rounds were larger, more destructive, and could be launched farther.
Not only was the artillery destructive, but they also began firing new types of munitions: poison gas.
The gas was corrosive and could destroy your lungs and your skin as well as make you blind.
By the time the shooting stopped at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, approximately 20 million soldiers and civilians had been killed in total on all fronts of the war.
While the shooting stopped, that wasn’t the end of the story. Yes, the survivors and the wounded had to go on and live their lives, having suffered through the experience.
However, there was also the issue of the actual land itself.
In the past, when a great battle had been fought, it seldom left any long-term impact on the land itself. Other than items that may have been dropped or bodies that might have been buried, you’d be hard-pressed to be able to identify where a great battle took place.
We still aren’t 100% sure where the Battle of Cannee took place over 2,200 years ago.
However, it is highly likely that centuries from now, historians will still be able to tell where the Western Front was located in World War I.
If you have ever seen any footage or images from the Western Front, you might have noticed that it is completely devoid of life. There are no standing trees. The ground has been completely churned up from the millions of artillery rounds that fell everywhere.
The entire landscape was covered in craters, which made it look like a muddy moonscape. Whatever towns and villages may have been caught in the battlefield were probably pulverized into nothing.
After the war, the French government had to figure out what to do with this land. Normally, at the end of hostilities, people would have been allowed to return to their homes. However, at the end of the Great War, the devastation was so great it was not considered to be possible.
Along the border with Belgium, the French government declared some areas to be dangerous and advised people to be careful. These were known as yellow and blue zones.
However, the very worst areas were reported as follows in a French government report: “Completely devastated. Damage to properties: 100%. Damage to Agriculture: 100%. Impossible to clean. Human life impossible”.
These areas were called Zone Rouge or the Red Zone.
Why were these regions considered to be so bad that no one was allowed to enter, let alone live there?
The first had to do with the extreme levels of pollution. All of the explosives and chemical weapons permeated the ground. Much of it settled into the soil, which it remains today.
Some small areas in the red zone have arsenic levels so high that trees still can’t grow.
Lead, mercury, and zinc from the munitions can still be found in the soil at toxic levels, and it is expected that the levels will be dangerous for at least 10,000 years.
There are traces of chemicals that still show up in the groundwater in the region, which are believed to come from the residue from mustard gas used in the war.
However, the chemical contamination of the soil isn’t even the biggest problem.
The real problem is the unexploded ordinance.
Of the over one billion rounds of artillery shells that were fired during the First World War, an estimated three hundred million of them were duds. Some estimates place the number of duds as high as a third of all artillery shells. This was due to the low manufacturing quality because each side was more interested in quantity than quality.
While these shells didn’t detonate, they still are packed with explosives.
These unexploded artillery shells are located all over northern France and southern Belgium.
For over a century, these unexploded shells have been appearing almost continuously. The annual collection of all of these unexploded shells is known as the Iron Harvest.
For farmers and people who live in the regions of France and Belgium that used to be the location of the Western Front, unexploded ordinance has been a fact of life for the last 100 years.
It is hard even to conceive how many unexploded shells from the war still are in the soil in this area. A study conducted in 2005-2006 determined that the worst areas in the Red Zone contain about 120 unexploded shells in the top 15 centimeters, or 6 inches of topsoil, in every acre.
Farmers who find shells in their fields routinely take them to drop-off points that exist for unexploded shells.
Both France and Belgium have government departments dedicated to handling unexploded munitions from the First World War. In France, it is known as the Département du Déminage or the Department of De-mining. In Belgium, it is known as the Belgian Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group or DOVO.
Every year, both organizations will handle the controlled elimination of 150 to 200 metric tons of these antique explosives.
You might be thinking that after a century in the ground, most of these explosives are probably not active anymore. That is absolutely not the case. It is true that some of these might no longer be able to explode, but every year, there are reported cases of farmers who detonate rounds with their farm machinery while plowing.
Since the end of the war, there have been over 1,000 people have been killed from unexploded munitions which were used in the war. Thankfully, the number of fatalities from unexploded shells has dropped dramatically over the last 25 years.
Two people were killed from WWI ordinance in 1998 in France, and two construction workers were killed in Belgium in 2014 when they encountered an unexploded shell.
It isn’t just the explosive shells that are a problem, either. In some ways, they are easier to deal with because they can just be detonated in a controlled environment. There were chemical rounds that also didn’t detonate that are still in the ground.
When these gas canisters are discovered, they have to be taken to a special facility where the contents are burned at very high temperatures to destroy the chemicals inside.
There have been cases of farmers rupturing chemical weapon canisters and having to get treatment for exposure to the contents.
For many shells, they have no idea just looking at the shell if it contains chemicals or explosives. In such cases, they have to treat it as if it contained poisonous gas.
In areas that saw extensive fighting in both world wars, the munitions from the First World War are usually considered more dangerous because of the possibility of chemical weapons.
There is one other thing that is also being found in these areas on a regular basis: human remains.
Many of the dead from the war simply went missing. Their bodies may have been buried in soil that was kicked up from an artillery round. There have been cases of multiple remains of soldiers, all found in the basement of buildings that went undiscovered during the war.
Even if all issues with chemicals and explosives were resolved, in the immediate aftermath of the war, many of the worst areas would probably still have been off limits because they are de facto cemeteries.
You might wonder why they don’t just make a massive effort and clean up all the unexploded ordinance scattered around France and Belgium for good.
The answer is there is just too much. With hundreds of millions of unexploded rounds, conservatively, there are at least tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of unexploded shells, still in the ground over a very wide area.
The current estimates are that it will take somewhere between 300 and 700 years for France and Belgium to be free of unexploded ordinance.
The lesson of Zone Rouge and the Iron Harvest is that modern wars don’t just end. While World War I might be the oldest war that has a problem with unexploded munitions. There are still unexploded bombs, artillery shells, and land mines from many wars that are still plaguing communities around the world.
In the case of the First World War, with the many centuries it will take to clear and remove everything, it is quite possible that the last casualty of the Great War may be someone who was born hundreds of years after the conflict ended.