• France's news in English

100 years on, WWI explosives still a danger

AFP/The Local · 12 May 2014, 09:52

Published: 12 May 2014 09:52 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

"Look at that, it looks like an old stovepipe but there are several kilos of explosives in there, potentially active," said team leader Didier Schahl as he heaved the huge munition out of the ground.

This rocky outcrop, which was given the name Vieil-Armand by veterans, saw an estimated 30,000 French and German deaths during the Great War (1914-1918), as it is still called in France.

In all, the war claimed the lives of 10 million soldiers and left 20 million more wounded, in addition to millions more civilian casualties.

It also left a huge number of explosives buried across Europe.  

This demining team is based in Colmar in the Alsace region bordering Germany, an area France lost in the 1870s during the Franco-Prussian war then won back from Germany in 1918.

The team estimates that around 20 percent of the billion-and-a-half munitions fired during World War I did not explode.

And one hundred years later, Alsace remains particularly vulnerable, its residents living on a carpet of unexploded munitions that are still capable of death and destruction.

"World War I amounted to a laboratory for new munitions. The stalemate between opposing lines forced them to invent new artillery for the trenches. The munitions were conceived quickly, with improvised materials," said Schahl as he carefully stored the newly unearthed bomb in the back of a truck.

Work for 'seven centuries'

It's hard to estimate the number of munitions that still lie undiscovered in gardens, fields and Alsatian vineyards, but the 12-person demining team says their work is round the clock.

"Since the end of winter, we have received a dozen requests for intervention every day," said Schahl.

Every year, around 20 tonnes of shells, grenades and other mortars dating from the two world wars are collected by the unit. It is a titanic mission that will last another "seven centuries", he said.

Disposing of them is a delicate process. The munitions are carefully removed and transported to remote gravel pits.

The locations are secret to keep the public out of harm's way. They are then attached to anti-tank mines and blown up.

Another call has just come in. On the way to the picturesque commune of Aspach-le-Haut, the employees of a waste disposal company have just unearthed some chemical weapons shells, scattered in a pile of rocks during a crushing operation.

It was a miracle that no explosion took place, they say.    

"In cases like this, there are huge constraints on how we explode these munitions," said one of the demining team, Frederic, who is scratching the warheads of the munitions with gloved hands to determine their composition.

They may look dilapidated, but these bombs have lost nothing of their dangerous potential. "With oxidation, the explosive degrades and becomes more unstable than before," said Frederic.

In Alsace, rare catastrophes have left an indelible mark on the community.

In 1981, six children were killed when they moved a mortar in their schoolyard in Bremmelbach.

Story continues below…

"That was the start of the population taking notice," recalls Edouard Hannauer, one of the deminers from that time.

But popular assistance is not always a good idea.

"People would bring us munitions they had found," said Hannauer, even though the vast majority of accidents occur when people try to move munitions themselves.

Even the experts are prone to grave accidents. In 2007, two deminers died in Metz while preparing munitions for explosion.

At one of the secret gravel pits, Schahl is about to press the red button on his detonator.

"Four, three, two, one, fire!" he shouts, triggering a huge explosion that puts one more potential death trap out of harm's way.

AFP/The Local (sophie.inge@thelocal.com)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
How life for expats in France has changed over the years
A market in Eymet, southwestern France. Photo: AFP

Foreigners in France explain how life has changed over the years.

London calling for Calais youths, but only a chosen few
Photo: AFP

Dozens of Calais minors are still hanging their hopes on help from the UK, but not all will be so lucky.

17 different ways to talk about sex in French
Photo: Helga Weber/Flickr

Fancy a quick run with the one-legged man?

Yikes! This is what a rat-infested French jail looks like
Photo: YouTube/France Bleu TV.

This video is not for sufferers of ratophobia (or musophobia as the condition is officially called).

France to allow Baby Jesus in Town Halls this Christmas
Photo: AFP

Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus are safe to go on display again this year, it seems.

National Front posts locations of migrants in French town
The National Front courts controversy. Photo: AFP

"Local tax payers have a right to know," says local far-right party chief.

Paris thieves use tear gas to steal €500,000 of watches
Photo: AFP

The thieves pretended to be couriers then threatened staff with tear gas to get the watches.

Bataclan survivor recounts attack in chilling drawings
Photo: BFMTV screengrab

One survivor has recounted the horrific night through illustrations.

Anger among French police grows as Hollande vows talks
French police demonstrate on the Champs Elysées. Photo: AFP

A fourth night of protests shows government efforts to ease anger among French police have been fruitless.

UK border must move back, says 'next French president'
Photo: AFP

If favourite Alain Juppé is elected, Britain and France are in for some difficult negotiations.

Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Why Toulouse is THE place to be in France right now
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
Video: New homage to Paris shows the 'real side' of city
The 'most dangerous' animals you can find in France
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Swap London fogs for Paris frogs: France woos the Brits
Anger after presenter kisses woman's breasts on live TV
Is France finally set for a cold winter this year?
IN PICS: The story of the 'ghost Metro stations' of Paris
How to make France's 'most-loved' dish: Magret de Canard
Welcome to the flipside: 'I'm not living the dream in France'
Do the French really still eat frogs' legs?
French 'delicacies' foreigners really find hard to stomach
French are the 'world's most pessimistic' about the future
Why the French should not be gloomy about the future
This is the most useful French lesson you will ever have. How to get angry
Why is there a giant clitoris in a field in southern France?
French pastry wars: Pain au chocolat versus chocolatine
Countdown: The ten dishes the French love the most
Expats or immigrants in France: Is there a difference?
How the French reinvented dozens of English words
The ups and downs of being both French and English
How Brexit vote has changed life for expats in France
Twelve French insults we'd love to have in English
What's on in France: Ten of the best events in October
jobs available