Modern Day, News, WW1

The Deadly ‘Iron Harvest’ Still Threatens European Farmers

  • Collecting unexploded artillery and bombs from fields is called ‘iron harvesting’.
  • Unexploded bombs from World War One haunt European farmers even after a century.
  • According to estimates, more than 300 million rounds of ordnance dropped in Belgium remain undiscovered.

Iron Harvest

For the fighting nations involved, World War One ended in 1918; however, for European farmers, the war never ended. Thousands of unexploded artillery shells and various ammunition are unearthed across European lands every year. Sadly, even after a century, there’s no sign of it stopping.

During World War One, a significant amount of duds sank in the mud or were covered by earth from relentless shelling. As a result, these shells and grenades often resurface during construction works, fieldwork, and natural processes. This phenomenon is called the “Iron Harvest”.

A French Farmer and some the UXBs
French and Belgium Farmers face daily dangers with the Iron Harvest of WW1

After four years of constant war, many cities in France and Belgium were in ruins. Even though some bombs failed to go off a hundred years ago, they still threaten lives today.

Read More: Point du Hoc – The Lost Battlefield

The fields of Flanders in Belgium once primarily flourished with wheat, beets, and potatoes. However, now they have danger ploughed into them. These unexploded bombs are called duds by the local farmers.

According to some sources, soldiers fired more than 300 million explosives around Belgium in World War One. However, reports suggest that most of the duds around those areas remain undiscovered.

Mustard Gas

According to historians, five percent of World War One artillery included gas filled shells. The ordnance removal team of Belgium discovers at least one of these gas weapons every week. Other factors, such as deteriorating debris, allow rust, which seeps into the soil, making these shells even more poisonous.

In addition, experts salvaged around 160 tonnes of ordnance in Ypres, Belgium, in 2019, uncovering bullets, grenades, and naval gun shells that could destroy an entire city block.

Maxim machine gun from an Iron Harvest from WW1 battlefields
The WW1 battlefields still continue to try and return, guns, grenades and shells back to their owners, over a century later. Every year in what is known as the ‘Iron Harvest’, hundreds of tons of unexploded shells are collected from the battlefields.

France also suffers from unexploded artillery. French farmers continue to work in fear of being maimed, and according to research, more often than not survivors need an amputation in around seventy-five percent of these dud shell incidents.

Read More: Magnet Fisherman Pulls Rare German WW2 Pistol from Canal

In an interview for Rodney Magowan, a French farmer said, “Underground bunkers are an increasing danger. One neighbor ended up with his tractor thirty feet down in a bunker. Timber beams from 1918 had eventually given way under the weight of his machinery because timber rots and tractors are getting heavier.”

Dangers of Ordnance Explosions

In World War Two, British and American forces dropped around 1.5 million tons of bombs on Germany. However, 10 percent of those bombs didn’t explode at the time . Hence, annually, about 2000 tonnes of bombs are found in different areas across the country.

WW1 battlefield filled with shells
During WW1 an estimated one tonne of explosives was fired for every square metre of territory on the Western front. It is thought that one in every three shells fired did not explode. The Iron Harvest collects these unexploded shells every year as they are unearthed by farmers.

Experts discovered a massive 4,000-pound bomb in 2013, immediately evacuating 20,000 people. A similar event occurred in 2011 in Germany, which resulted in the evacuation of 45,000 people, wreaking havoc across the entire country.

Read More: Japanese Submarine her 80-man Crew Still Entombed

However, despite the best efforts of bomb disposal units and detonation experts, accidental civilian deaths unfortunately still occur.

Stockpile of WW1 Artillery shells.
In WW1 Shells were stockpiled in their tens of thousands. Many failed to go off.

In 2014, a German construction worker’s shovel struck a bomb which exploded instantly and killed him within seconds. According to reports, at least one person in Belgium dies annually due to accidental contact.

Iron Harvest Teams

This Iron harvesting operation is typically conducted during spring planting and autumn cultivating. Governments all over Europe recruit bomb disposal squads to remove the artillery duds found during harvesting.

Initially, the teams survey the land for danger. After discovering a dud, the bomb disposal team decides whether they have to set the shell off or relocate it. These disposal units carry sand boxes in their trucks so that these bombs do not collide during transportation.

Shells from the Iron Harvest
The Iron Harvest is crucial. Around the farmland of Ypres, unexploded shells have been responsible for killing 260 and injuring over 500 since the end of WW1

The experts use different techniques to identify hazardous chemicals present in the shells. Furthermore, scientists study the surfaces under a neutron-induced gamma spectroscope to identify the chemicals underneath the metal casings. In the end, they freeze the shells to liquefy the substances before disposing of the casing.

It all comes down to the military experts to make these challenging calls. And sometimes , they too make mistakes.