WWI Munitions Still Live Beneath Western Front In small French towns along what was once the Western Front, residents still live with the aftermath of the Great War. Demining teams are working to safely remove the unexploded shells and grenades that work their way to the soil's surface.
NPR logo

WWI Munitions Still Live Beneath Western Front

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/16131857/16196963" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
WWI Munitions Still Live Beneath Western Front

WWI Munitions Still Live Beneath Western Front

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/16131857/16196963" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

LIANE HANSEN, Host:

Eleanor Beardsley spent some time with the demining team in the region and sent this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Michel Colin and a colleague load up their truck with protective gear. They are about to look for ordinates that still hasn't exploded.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR STARTING)

BEARDSLEY: Colin says he always takes a gas mask with him because the mustard gas can be lethal - even 91 years later. Colin says he constantly reminds the local population of the danger.

MICHEL COLIN: (Through translator) People here have grown up with these shells. They find them all the time, and so it's banal for them, and they have a tendency to see them as harmless. But these shells are charged and still active. We can't forget that these are weapons that were made to kill people - and they still do.

BEARDSLEY: Two of Colin's colleagues were killed on the job this year when a stockpile of shells exploded. Colin heads out to investigate a report of some explosives that have just been found. On the way, he is stopped by a couple of people who've come across two shells by the roadside.

COLIN: Unidentified Man: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Colin follows them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

BEARDSLEY: The locals say the farmers lay the shells out by the side of the road when they find them in their fields. Colin identifies the two rusty trench mortars: one is English the other is German. The foot-long shelves looked ancient, but Colin says their fuses are still intact and their powder is still dry.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPENING DOOR)

BEARDSLEY: Collin Gellard is leading a tour group around the battlefields.

COLLIN GELLARD: One hundred shelves are fired in six days prior to the Battle of the Somme. But we have to think about the large amount of shells that did not explode are still coming up today. We call it the iron harvest. And since I've been here - all these are being here, there's not much places you can't walk out, in the winter in particularly, and to pick up old rifles and munitions, shells of all types of grenades, bodies. Sadly, we still dig up a lot of bodies.

BEARDSLEY: Colin's next call is a potato field where farmer Xavier Vanden Drischer is harvesting his crops.

BEARDSLEY: (French spoken)

XAVIER VANDEN DRISCHER: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: (French spoken)

VANDEN DRISCHER: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Vanden Drischer is not only a farmer; he's the mayor of the tiny village, Courcelette.

VANDEN DRISCHER: (Through translator) This place was on the Red Zone after World War I because it was considered uninhabitable. Everything was destroyed, and there were so many shells in the soil. No one was interested in coming back after the war. Today, only about three families out of 70 are real natives. Welcome to the village of foreigners.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BEARDSLEY: At the end of the day, Colin wraps the shells and grenade in a plastic explosive material that resembles modeling clay. He attaches them to a long electric cable and buries them deep in the ground. He then moves about 75 yards away and hits the detonator button.

COLIN: (French spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

BEARDSLEY: For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Amiens, France.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.