In Flanders fields, old shells kill For salvage team, World War I goes on

July 22, 1996|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

YPRES, Belgium -- All is not quiet on the Western Front.

Here on one of World War I's busiest and bloodiest battlefields, unexploded artillery shells stir from an 80-year slumber, rising by the thousands from the mud of Flanders.

Some are awakened by plows and backhoes. Others are simply heaved to the surface by the steady workings of frost and thaw. Having outlived nearly everyone who once built them, fired them or cowered beneath their flight, the shells remain ready to kill. And sometimes not even the full-time efforts of 73 Belgian soldiers and civilians are enough to stop them.

"For us, the First World War has not stopped," says Philippe Pille, commander of a bomb-disposal unit that might be called the war's last active detachment.

Based at the edge of a forest where ferns and birches hide the contours of old trenches and shell craters, his unit retrieves ordnance each day from the rolling landscape where four of the war's great battles were fought.

Each occurred in and around a bulge in the front known as the Ypres Salient, and the deadliest came in July 1917, when about 250,000 British troops died capturing a few square miles of mud around the village of Passchendaele.

The enemy then was Germany. Today it is a multinational arsenal of shells -- long ones, short ones, fat ones, skinny ones, each coated heavily with rust, and about one of every 10 containing poisonous gas, a weapon that made its military debut here during a German attack in April 1915.

Each year at least 3,000 shells turn up in the area, although the totals are likely higher. There are so many that the annual haul is measured in tonnage rather than projectiles.

"We are finding more shells this year than last year, and last year we found more than the year before that," says Cpl. Bart Guillemyn. "Maybe it is because it has been a wet year and they're coming up to the surface, or maybe it's because farmers are using better and heavier equipment, and digging deeper."

Whatever the reason, the persistently heavy harvest offers a cautionary tale for every other country where artillery and land mines remain buried in the wake of recent fighting.

"In Bosnia, in Africa, in Laos and Cambodia, they will be having this problem for 50 years, minimum," says Warrant Officer Wielfried De Ryck, after morning rounds collecting shells at 30 farms, gardens and construction sites.

U.S. officers serving with peacekeeping forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina have lately been citing the lingering problems of the Western Front as an object lesson, especially when locals begin grumbling about the slow pace at which mines and shells are being removed. If De Ryck's career is any indication, they may still be grumbling decades from now.

He has been at it for 18 years, and when he came on the job in 1978, he joined soldiers who had been doing the same thing since the 1950s. They, in turn, joined veterans who had begun work in the '30s, who had in turn inherited their careers from the originals, who began clearing Flanders fields in 1919, the year after the armistice.

In those days World War I was still known as the Great War, although its true greatness was in the great number of men killed -- in the millions. Fought in an era when the efficiency of weapons far exceeded the imagination of generals, it quickly turned into stalemate and slaughter along the Western Front, a line of mud stretching from Switzerland to the North Sea. In one futile offensive after another, hundreds of thousands of soldiers poured out of trenches, only to be cut down in waves by machine-gun fire.

The only way to break this cycle, generals figured, was to precede attacks with artillery bombardments. Each time that failed, they simply increased the duration and intensity of the next bombardment, to the point that literally millions of shells would be fired in a single day.

But about 30 percent of the shells in those days routinely failed to explode, meaning that millions sank into the mire to await future generations. And the more years that pass, the more often people assume that the shells have lost their potency, Pille says.

It can be a costly assumption. Last year an amateur collector who attempted to dismantle a shell with a hammer and hacksaw was lucky to lose only an eye and a hand when the shell went off. About twice a year farmers around Ypres set off old shells as their tractors strike them in the fields.

For Pille's unit, the worst episode in recent memory was in 1986, when a poisonous gas shell blew up as soldiers moved it from one platform to another. Four were killed.

Most days, however, De Ryck and five other men drive about the countryside, answering the latest calls relayed by local police.

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