France: Forbidden Beech forest covers Battle of Verdun

As a direct result of land contamination by unexploded ordinance, 16 million acres of France were cordoned off at the end of 1918, including the 2 million acres around Verdun. Known as the Zone Rouge, they remain forbidden territory to this day.

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During the First World War, these hills and gorges were cratered by a continuous ten-month-long artillery bombardment more intense than any  before and any since. The mature beech forests that cover these hills were home to some of the Great War’s most bitter fighting; as many as  150 shells fell for every square meter of this battlefield. As well as  being the longest battle of the Great War, the Battle of Verdun also  has the ignominy of being the first test of modern industrialized slaughter. Not for nothing was the battlefield known as “The Mincer.”

“There’s nothing like Verdun. This is a place where the world changed,” says Christina Holstein, a British historian. Over 60 million shells were fired into this area between February 21 and December 18, 1916, killing 305,440 men out of 708,777 casualties. In the forest, in among the ruin, unexploded bombs lie everywhere.

British, French, American, and German armies fired approximately 720 million shells and mortar bombs on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918. Military experts estimate that as many as one in five rounds of
ammunition fired by either side failed to explode.

I walk inexpertly on uneven soil, the edge of one crater intersecting another, snagging my boots on what at first I assume are brambles but quickly recognize as copious strands of needle-sharp barbed wire camouflaged by sprigs of new growth. I’m being led by a small band of démineurs from the Département du Déminage through territory honeycombed with a myriad of trenches, tunnels, and mines. We are then all looking down at a German 155-millimeter high-explosive artillery shell about a hundred pounds in weight, as long as your arm and as thick as your thigh. Ninety-odd years ago this shell smashed into the ground at over a thousand miles per hour; it’s been lodged here ever since, waiting to be discovered.

“This is the type of bomb that killed our friends in December,” Guy says in English without looking up. Continuing to stare at the shell, he adds, “A very difficult fuse, one wrong move and . . . pop!” With a deep sigh, he moves deliberately toward the shell. Many of the shells fired contained toxic gas, and for the most part it is difficult for even the most experienced démineurs to distinguish which ones, excepting the rare occasion when the red, white, or yellow bands or crosses indicating that the munition contains gas are preserved.

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Comments (1)

bruce struikJanuary 6th, 2010 at 7:08 pm

In 1967 while walking through the forest described I found a small rabbit size hole in the hillside. I left the area and went and purchased a small shovel and a flashlight, returned and enlarge the hole so that I could craw thrrough. After a short distance it opened into a large room which obviously a command head-quarters. From the ceiling and dangling on a piece of rusted wire was a German helmet saturated with holes from the inside out and a the floor was a rusted 5 gal. bucket. Obviously it was a shower. I still have the helmet and had it sand-blasted back to the original gray and sealed to prevent future detoration. Any where I was and what army it would have been ?


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