Peace Time: The Shrinking World War I Red Zone

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May 17, 2016: One side-effect of hundredth anniversary of World War I is reminders that while the most common source of unexploded munitions are from World War II there are still some areas where World War I era unexploded munitions remain a major problem. This was especially true of the Western Front where over 300 million shells and grenades were used and a lot of them were duds. In France, where most of these shells landed, several hundred tons of unexploded World War I shells are still found each year. While 630 Frenchmen have died since 1945 dealing with the unexploded shells as time goes by the remaining stuff becomes less lethal. The death in France from World War I era munitions was in 1998.

Nevertheless there are still parts of the Western Front that remain off-limits to civilians. France did a survey of the Western Front right after World War I and drew up a map showing the areas where the danger was greatest from unexploded munitions. The most dangerous areas, the “Red Zone” was 1,200 square kilometers in 1919 but has shrunk over the years to their present size of 168 square kilometers.

Despite the huge quantities of shells fired on the Russian Front in both World Wars you hear little about it because the Russian Front battles were fought over a much larger area and the communist era command economy meant little new construction. With all the post-Cold War construction going on in Russia a lot more of these old munitions are being found, but most of them from World War II. For example in 2013 two men died when a World War II era artillery shell went off as they examined it in a forest outside Kaliningrad, which was the German city of Konigsberg until it changed ownership at the end of World War II. Earlier in 2013 two railroad workers were injured when they triggered a World War II era landmine outside St Petersburg (formerly Leningrad). In Western Russia police arrested a man in 2013 who was trying to sell five 81mm mortar shells he had found. He found six, but tested one by tossing it in a fire, taking cover and then noting that the 65 year old shell exploded. These shells weigh 4-5 kg (8.8-11 pounds) and about twenty percent of that is explosives (most of it high explosives, the rest propellant). In most parts of Russia the local governments offer a reward for people who turn in ancient munitions, or better yet, don’t try and move the stuff and just report the location. But this guy either didn’t know about the rewards or figured he could make more by selling the five shells. Most people had better sense than to buy elderly munitions and word of the sales activity eventually got to the police. These rewards are not the only continuing cost of World War II. There are also the heavy expenses for special teams of technicians who can safely remove these ancient but still deadly munitions.

But some of the worst problems take place on Pacific islands that were fought over during World War II. For example, the U.S. is spending over $50 million to remove World War II era bombs and shells on Guam, as new bases for troops are constructed. Over the last few years the bomb disposal teams on Guam were called out 4-5 times a week, 70 years after World War II ended. These small islands had far more bombs and shells used on them that the comparatively vast areas of Europe.

Europe, where hundreds of World War II explosives are unearthed each year, has one problem Russia sees little of; large bombs that did not go off when dropped during the war and are still being found. But the fuzes that did not go off in the 1940s are now getting old and more prone to detonation while being disabled or simply moved. Detonating bombs in place is often expensive, because it means evacuating lots of people, and exposing homes and businesses to bomb damage. The densely backed cities of Germany got hit heavily by the heavy bombers, something that rarely happened in Russia.

It’s not just aircraft bombs. Most of the explosives unearthed are smaller items like grenades, mortar shells, rockets and mines. Many bombs, artillery and mortar shells (over ten percent, for some manufacturers) did not explode when they were supposed to, but just buried themselves into the ground. These shells are still full of explosives, and often have a fuze that, while defective, is often still capable of going off if disturbed. Other munitions were left in bunkers, or elsewhere on the battlefield, and got buried and lost. Most of these lost munitions eventually get found by farmers, or anyone digging up the ground for construction. Most large cities, Europe and the Pacific, that were heavily bombed cities during World War II, still suffer from construction crews unearthing unexploded bombs. In Russian cities you tend to find lots of artillery shells were fired by both Russian and German troops.

The problem goes back farther than World War II. Unexploded munitions from the World War I (which ended in 1918), and the American Civil War (which ended in 1865), are still showing up, and some of them are still deadly. Currently, over a thousand World War II munitions are discovered each year in Europe.

 


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