The Iron Harvest By Ashley Carter 2018
Despite this year marking the centenary of the end of World War One, the lasting impact of the conflict is still being felt in the town of Ypres, Belgium. As the site of some of the War's bloodiest conflicts, including the Battle of Passchendale, Hellfire Corner and Mousetrap Farm, Ypres is now an idyllic countryside landscape dominated by seemingly endless fields of ploughed farmland.
But it is under these pastures that the deadly remnants of the Great War, in the form of hundreds of millions of unexploded artillery shells, bombs, grenades, guns and bullets, are still being found, causing considerable damage, and even hundreds of deaths, to the inhabitants of Ypres.
Driving through the town and its surrounding areas, it's almost impossible to think that this was once the site of almost indescribable carnage. The five major battles that took place in and around Ypres during the four-year conflict claimed at least 1.5 million lives (the exact number of dead will never be known), with the acres of immaculately kept war graves that interrupt the pastural landscape serving as a harrowing reminder of the town's bloody history.
One such farmer is Delphine Hoorelbeke, whose holding is located in Sint-Juliann, just North-East of Ypres. She runs the farm along with her husband and father, having lived there her entire life. The road to her farmhouse was about 100 meters long, and in that short distance alone were six unexploded artillery shells. Having discovered them during the previous day's ploughing, she had carefully placed the 12" rusted shells inside the gaps within street lights, awaiting collection from bomb disposal experts.
"Finding bombs and shells has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember," she explains, "when I was younger I didn't appreciate how scary it was, but as I got older and heard stories of farmers and bomb disposal teams being killed, I started to become really frightened to plough my fields."
It would seem that fear was justified, as in 2016 Delphine stumbled across one of the largest World War One bombs ever discovered (weighing 160kg) on her farmland, less than 30 meter’s from her house. "That could have been the end of me, my family and our farm," said Delphine, with a nervous smile, "but that's the reality that every farmer in Ypres lives with."
Looking across the stunning rolling pastures that surround her farmhouse, she confesses, "I often think of the men that fired these shells. Some young boy forced to fight for his country, operating a piece of artillery in 1918, having no idea that the shell he fired could kill a peaceful farmer like me in 2018."
In Ypres alone, hundreds of people have been killed by unexploded bombs and shells since the end of the War, the majority of whom have been farmers and bomb disposal experts. As well as the human cost, farmers face a significant risk to their equipment, which Delphine explains is perhaps the biggest threat to her livelihood, "It is true that people have been killed and injured, but as farmers we are far more worried about our tractors. You can knock on any farmer’s door and ask them, they would have lost some expensive equipment. We don’t get any compensation at all."
It's striking just how routine the discovery of unexploded bombs and shells has become for the farmers of Ypres. Whilst explaining how her iron gate, which was the only part of the farm to survive the War, is still riddled with bullet marks, her father approached, pretending to throw a grenade he had found whilst digging up potatoes that morning. Noticing her fear, he let out a thunderous laugh, before throwing it onto a pile that included several other grenades, hundreds of bullets, two rifles and half a dozen artillery shells. "He thinks it's funny," she wearily explains, "he's been seeing these things his entire life. But my two children live here."
The number of unexploded shells being found in Ypres rose to such an extent that the Belgian military built a permanent base in the nearby town of Boezinge. DOVO, whose exclusive task is to collect and safely dispose of the unexploded material, detonate about 50kg of explosive materials every day, before burying the remnants in deep trenches. An estimated 200,000 tons of artillery shells were fired in the area during the war, and the 70-strong unit recover between 150-200 tons of it every year.
Attending to dozens of calls every day, the main struggle DOVO face is beating the tourists, collectors and militaria traders to the bombs and shells left at the side of the road by farmers. Seemingly unaware of the deadly nature of these objects, several collectors have been killed in the process, including two British teenagers who were blown up whilst attempting to steal a 6lb high explosive shell in 2003.
Since the unit, whose motto is 'Pericula non timeo' ('I do not feel dangers'), was formed, more than 20 members have been killed whilst collecting and disarming bombs, including four by the same bomb in 1986. Far more common are the large yellow blisters that form on their arms and legs, caused by exposure to poisonous mustard gas released from certain artillery shells and bombs.
It would be hard to find an area in mainland Europe that hadn’t functioned as a battle site at some point throughout the centuries. But the Western Front, and Ypres in particular, are unique in still suffering the lethal effects of the vastly different nature of warfare between 1914-1918. Whilst artillery had been a mainstay on battlefields across the world since the 14th century, World War One was a definitive turning point in its use, with the importance and capability of artillery fire in battle tactics reaching a previously unthinkable scale.
With the Ypres area being dominated by trench warfare, heavy artillery bombardments that could last up to eight hours at a time were utilised by both sides in order to destroy defenses. Ordered to try and clear men, guns and barbed wire out of the way ahead of an advance, artillery fire became a mainstay of the War despite being both inefficient and frequently ineffective. Stalemates often saw these bombardments stretch out for weeks, and even months, at a time.
This new reliance on artillery saw the invention of revolutionary new shells, such as high explosives, mustard gas and the colossal navy gun shells which, packed with enough explosives to fill five articulated lorries, were capable of destroying an entire city block.
These technological advances rapidly changed the face of warfare as the world knew it, ushering in a deadly new era of chemical warfare. Shells were fired at a rate between 50,000 and 70,000 tons a year on the Western Front, ensuring that when the War finally drew to a close in 1918, there was not a single building in the town of Ypres left standing.
But what happens to the countless munitions that have been found? Whilst anything that still poses a gas or explosive threat is disposed of by DOVO, there remains an enormous stockpile of bullets, defused grenades, rifles, helmets and personal artifacts from soldiers of the conflict.
The museums in the area are filled to bursting point with artifacts, to the extent that large stockpiles of shells lay rusting outside. The excess of these items, as well as the continued interest in the conflict has created a rather macabre industry in the town of Ypres, in which tourists can buy any type of militaria, for as little as €0.50 for an authentic British machine gun bullet.
The artillery shells form the backbone of this industry, as Steve Douglas, the Canadian-born owner of The British Grenadier Bookshop in the centre of Ypres, describes, “We clean the shells up to look like beautiful ornaments, and people love to keep them on their mantelpieces or give them as presents.”
As well as shells and bullets, his shop is host to more personal artifacts, such as medals, reading glasses, medical kits and unopened food found from soldiers who had died during the conflict. “Tourists love it, especially the British,” he continues, “I could easily open two more shops with the amount of artillery shells I can get hold of alone.”
Until then, the farmers of Ypres will continue to live and work under the constant threat of these deadly, dormant remnants of one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history.