Relics of war still quite dangerous

Earlier this year, Cincinnatian John Stuck was cleaning out his house preparing for a move, getting rid of the kinds of things we all accumulate over the years.


Among his papers was an article he had saved because it revealed in a unique way the long reach of a war. Any war. He sent the piece to me.

The story has a haunting quality, I think you will agree. It deals with battle deaths delayed and it is set in France.

Literally millions of shells, bombs, grenades, mortars, high explosives, mustard and chlorine gas are scattered everywhere over battlefields, some of which fell silent more than 90 years ago.

In France, a group of demineurs - "de-miners" - has worked since the end of World War II to locate and remove old ordnance that, though corroded, is still "live" and still has the power to kill.

They also work, as much as possible, in secret. The French government was not anxious to advertise how many explosive devices still littered their picturesque countryside.

Incredibly, in the year the article was written a decade ago, 36 French farmers were killed and 51 seriously injured when their tractors or other implements struck shells. In that same year, five "de-miners" were killed and 11 injured trying to remove the explosives.

Some of the shells are from World War II, but the majority are from the years 1914-1918. Germany had invaded France and the conflict soon settled into the nightmare of trench warfare from the English Channel to the Swiss border.

Millions of shells of every caliber were fired and, before long, Germany introduced the horror of "gas" shells; mustard, chlorine, phosgene, turning lungs to liquid, choking men to death.

Not all the shells exploded. A substantial fraction of them are still there.
By the mid-1990s, 630 "de-miners" had died doing their vital dangerous work.

As you know, there are organizations dedicated to the elimination of mines worldwide. The late Princess Diana was among the advocates for that cause. Stories are told of children in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and now in Iraq losing their lives to mines that were set to kill or deter combatants. War's unintended consequences.

As this article shows us, the humanitarian workers have their work cut out for them. Leftover bombs will be killing children and adults for decades to come.

Europeans don't have to go far afield to find the evidence. France, over whose fields wars were waged through the 20th century and long before, is the grim lab experiment.

Even now, farmers turn up 75 mm, 88 mm, 105 mm and other shells with some regularity. And even now, men
come, at risk of life and limb, to remove them. The older gas shells are the ones everybody dreads the most. They can usually be identified by encircling white lines, according to the demineurs.

Until the early 1990s, they were disposed of by trucking them to the mud flats of the English Channel at low tide, putting them in pits with detonators, waiting for the tide to roll in, then exploding them. It is said that the steamy plume of water that resulted was spectacular to see - from a safe distance. Environmentalists got that practice stopped and less chancy means are now used.

The standard high explosive shells are accumulated, put in a big hole dug in a military reservation and blown up.

To me, the haunting quality of all this is trying to inventory all the places on earth where protracted wars have taken place. Armies have been very good at firing shells and planting mines. Much less thought was given to removing unexploded ordnance once the conflict was over.

Deaths of innocent people, most not even born when the war was fought, will still be paying the blood cost when all of us are gone.

Von: 20.6.2006 by Nick Clooney,

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