No one knows how many artillery and mortar shells were produced by the combatants during World War 1. For certain the number is well into the billions. That’s right, with a ”B”. Getting smaller but still not at all small, analysis of records has shown that, in the Ypres Salient in Belgium alone, about 1 billion shells were deployed and about 30 % of these either failed to detonate or were never fired at all. So it’s scarcely any wonder that these ‘leftover’ shells still keep turning up with astonishing regularity. And about 5 to 10% of them are gas shells, still filled with liquid chlorine, phosgene or mustard.
Each year hundreds of tons of munitions are recovered; the French government agency in charge, Le Départment du Deminage, reports around 900 tons per year while the Belgian Army says the figure on their side of the border is around 160 tons per year. It is thought that since the end of the war between 50,000 and 75,000 tons have been recovered from Western Front sites. This staggeringly large figure may be as little as 5% of the total still in the ground.
These “UXB’s” (using the Brit terminology) are quite dangerous. Since records have been kept, 360 persons have been killed and 535 injured in Belgium, while 630 have died in France. Some of these casualties have been persons seeking to recover and dispose of the munitions: 2 French were killed in 2007 and 4 Belgians in 1986. Burns from leaking gas shells are common, too. Disposal has become complicated as dumping offshore is no longer permitted.
Why are there so many of these devices? One explanation is the classically famous mud of the battlefields. Shells with contact fuses often failed to detonate because the mud provided a soft impact. Many clockwork fuses also failed. Lots of other shells were never fired but were lost in the mud due to the confusion of battle. For example, a few years ago a munitions dump containing over 3,100 German shells was uncovered by a construction crew.
Many civilians have died trying to salvage the copper driver bands and the brass fuses from WW1 artillery shells. A few years ago two teenaged entrepreneurs were killed trying to remove driver bands with a gas torch. Interestingly, this practice started before the war was even over. Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather, the serving officer who submitted cartoons to Punch every week, produced one which shows two of his characters, Bert and Alfie, engaged in just such a scheme. Alfie is seated atop an absurdly large shell with a hammer and cold chisel, and Bert says something like: “Give ‘er a good whack there. These ‘uns always fizzle a bit before they blow”.
The Iron Harvest isn’t confined to the Western Front. On the Asiago Plateau in Italy in 2008, while walking in the woods with my travel friend Maj. (ret.) Graham Harris of the Royal Army Logistics Corps, I actually caught the tip of my toe on a mostly buried shell. This was probably an Austro-Hungarian round and the driver bands appeared to be intact.