Reaping the deadly fruits of the 'Iron Harvest'
Cleansing Flanders Fields is seen as a calling by those who risk their lives to ensure the safety of others
When Stijn Butaye was 12, he ran into the kitchen with a live grenade he had discovered on his family farm, his mother ordered him out, without a second to lose, before he could release the pin.
A decade or so later, his father, Luc, was ploughing the 40 hectares spanning what was once the frontline between Passchendaele and Ypres, when he ran over a phosgene grenade.
“There was a lot of white poisonous smoke,” Stijn, now 30, recalls. “Luckily the wind carried it away. If he breathed it in his lungs would have burned and he would have suffocated on his own blood. That is the reality of what can happen on these fields.”
For the farmers of the Ypres Salient, the horrors of World War 1 remain all too real: in the shape of thousands upon thousands of unexploded shells buried around their land. Every year, about 250 tons of these lethal relics are discovered in what is known as the “Iron Harvest”. A century on from the end of the Great War, nobody can pinpoint quite how many bombs – 1.45 billion shells were fired between 1914 and 1918 – still lie in stasis.
But the lethal potential of the unexploded ordnance remains.
In 2014 two construction workers were killed in the Belgian medieval city of Ypres after unearthing a bomb on a building site. This year, as ever, several farmers have run over devices in their fields (and fortunately escaped serious injury).
Since the guns finally fell silent in November 1918, 360 people in the Ypres area alone have been killed and about 550 injured by World War 1 munitions.
Particular concern focuses on the remnants of the 66 million shells containing mustard gas or other toxic chemicals such as phosgene, arsenic or white phosphorus, many of which are now beginning to leak out as the steel casing erodes.
Retrieving bombs is the work of the Belgian bomb disposal unit, Dienst voor Opruiming en Vernietiging van Ontploffings-tuigen, or Dovo for short. The team is split across three sites in Belgium, with the most active occupying the 30km radius surrounding Ypres.
The Dovo motto is pericula non timeo: “we do not fear the danger”. The severity of what they face is immediately apparent inside the gates of the Flanders headquarters, where a memorial is etched with 23 names killed in the line of duty since the unit was established at the end of the World War 11. The most recent inscription was made in 2008.
By 8am on an average Tuesday in October, the Flanders team has already received 29 calls. While spring is the most dangerous time for farmers as they plough, using sophisticated machines that reach ever deeper into the soil, autumn harvest is another season of high risk as people strim back crops in time for winter.
Our first port of call is a cornfield next to the Aeroplane Cemetery, where 1,105 Commonwealth servicemen are buried. The farmer, who is nowhere to be seen, has piled up a series of mud-caked shells at the edge of his land and marked the spot with a stick topped with a white upturned plastic bottle.
The munitions turn out to be two 7.7cm German field shells (one possibly containing toxic gas), a 5kg and 8kg British artillery shell, a grenade and a handful of Lee Enfield rifle bullets.
The team carefully picks up the devices and loads them into a crate filled with sand, which they slot into the boot of their truck. They wear blue boiler suits and gloves: only if one of the gas shells begins to leak do they pull on full chemical hazmat suits.
Corporal Roland Vanhoutte has been teargassed by old British grenades and had chlorine gas spill out over him. “Suddenly it is like being in a swimming pool and you get these pimples,” the 39-year-old says. “That is when you better get away.”
Like many of those in Dovo, Vanhoutte is an Afghanistan veteran. Married with a two-year-old daughter, he admits his family worry about the dangers of his job. But he sees cleansing Flanders Fields as a calling.
“When you stand here listening to the birds it is hard to imagine 100 years before people were lying in the mud, bleeding to death and crying for their mother or father,” he says.
“People from all nations suffered and every inch you touch has to be done with respect. I hope the scars on this land never heal. There was a massacre here and we must never forget.”
We drive away and soon notice more shells piled up by the side of the road. We stop to chat to a farmer who points us to a nearby construction site: here, workers nonchalantly munch their lunchtime baguettes while inspecting a huge 15cm-diameter German howitzer shell. It was dug up by 27-year-old excavator driver Dries van Tomme.
Two years ago, while helping lay a new gas pipeline, he says he discovered 20 to 30 bodies huddled together in the Flanders clay.
In years past farmers would sell the shells for scrap, or even take them apart to salvage lead, which they used to buy new bicycles. Nowadays, they follow stricter rules, whereby each live shell should be reported to the police who then triage calls to the military.
Any human remains discovered are also supposed to be reported to the authorities, but farmers say their fields are scattered with far too many bones to retrieve.
Dirk Cardoen, a 63-year-old whose family have farmed 20 hectares of land bordering Passchendaele since 1920, says he has discovered 10 live shells already this year, including two in his potato patch.
“I don’t think the land will ever be free,” he says. “But I don’t worry, it is a part of life.”
The shells the bomb disposal teams collect are taken back to their headquarters, where they are cleaned, examined and categorised. If the contents of a shell are not clear, it is X-rayed on site. High-explosive shells are put into crates and blown up in controlled detonations .The toxic shells are taken to an on-site treatment facility, which opened last year at a cost of €16.8 million (the previous facility blew up in 2012, but with no casualties).
Adjutant Wouter Vehaeghe, facility manager, says since April last year, 350,000 toxic shells have been processed, which involves heating them to 550ºC to liberate the gases into different filters before they are released into the air. The most common are phosgene or mustard gas; “they are terrible weapons,” he says.
By the end of a single day the teams have retrieved 104 shells, as well as 11 grenades and 37 explosive fuses.
Gino Lambrecht, a sergeant major and team leader in Dovo, admits that astounding figure represents a mere drop in the ocean. "The end of the tunnel is not in sight," the 46-year-old says. "There are still many years of this to come."
He regards being a custodian of Flanders Fields as an honour as well as a burden, but one thought always preoccupies him as he handles yet another device that failed to fulfil its lethal destiny. "We have proved so inventive at devising ways to hurt each other," he says. "Imagine if we put that energy towards something else, instead."
- © Telegraph Media Group Limited