If we think of France, we probably think of the magic of Paris, the Eiffel Tower, the scents of Provence, the lavender fields, the glamor of the Croisette during the Cannes Festival or the enchanting castles of the Loire. But France is not only art and beauty, and especially during the First World War, its landscape was much more macabre. Even today there is an area which was declared “red”, that is subject to high risk and in which access has been forbidden for over a century.
More than a hundred years have passed since the Battle of Verdun, in France (February 21-December 1916), but its devastating effects still persist today. The no man’s land in northeastern France, that saw opposing the armies of Germany and France has since been called Zone Rouge, the red zone, initially formed by 1200 square kilometers of territory that has become too dangerous and was deemed unfit for human habitation.
And while the controlled areas have shrunk since 1918, thanks to the remediations that have been carried out and that it will take another seven hundred years to complete, certain areas remain entirely off-limits. The soil so full of arsenic that 99 percent of all plants die, along with the ever-present threat of unexploded shells.
The unimaginable intensity of the shelling along the Western Front left swaths of agricultural land completely obliterated, churned up into a nightmarish landscape of craters and bodies.
The battle of Verdun was one of the bloodiest of the World War I on the western front, and it was unleashed, in February 1916, by the 5th German army, which wanted to force the French to gather most of its army in one place, for “bleed it drop by drop”, and finally destroy it with an impressive artillery attack.
Verdun was considered almost unassailable by the French because it was protected by steep hills and numerous fortifications, 20 large and 40 smaller, as well as a line of deep trenches, which made it the most important point of defense on the French front. Precisely because it is considered almost impregnable, Verdun remained without protection of weapons and soldiers, sent to other battlefields, thus becoming a weak spot on the front.
However, things did not turn out as quickly as the Germans had hoped, which eventually were defeated and “drained of blood” like the French: the battle, which lasted for 303 days and remains one of the longest and most costly battles in human history, turned into a long conflict, which ended only in December 1916, causing 377,231 deaths between the French soldiers and 337,000 among the German ones. More recent data suggest a much higher number of victims: about 976,000 dead and 1,250,000 injured, including civilians.
The huge amount of used weapons, grenades, poison gas bullets, high-explosive artillery shells, forever changed the territory of Verdun.
Shortly after the war, the French government declared the area which stretches roughly from Nancy through Verdun and onto Lille unfit for human habitation or development. Already in 1918, at the end of the war, the French realized that it would take many centuries to completely clean up the area: all the agricultural villages that dotted the area were moved elsewhere and today remain abandoned, a ghostly memory of a devastated region from the madness of war, deemed beyond repair. Signs around the zone warn “village detruit,” or destroyed village. It is said these towns “died for France.”
At the time, the French government defined these areas in stark fashion: “Completely devastated. Damage to properties: 100%. Damage to Agriculture: 100%. Impossible to clean. Human life impossible.”
Although today it is possible to “tour the Battle of Verdun” inside the Zona Rouge, where a trench village has been specially recreated, the place remains very dangerous.
In an attempt to salvage this land, a special munitions-clearing agency was created. Called the Department du Deminage, it has, over the decades, helped to reduce the extent of the Zone Rouge, destroying hundreds of thousands of munitions and chemical shells, and returning some land to civilian and agricultural use. Their terrible task is aided by French farmers, who each year collect a huge amount of unexploded ordnance, barbed wire, shrapnel, and bullets during the annual “Iron Harvest”, but so far they have only scratched the surface of the problem.
Some areas look like a pristine forest, but millions of ammunition are hidden inside them, both exploded and unexploded. Besides these, there are still weapons, helmets and fragments of skeletons, but what makes the area uninhabitable for men is the pollution caused by chemical weapons, lead and the decomposition of humans and animals.
The tons of poison gas used, concentrated in a reserved area, have had a devastating impact on the land and waters of the region. Unfortunately, instead of improving, things seem to get worse over time. In 2004, soil analyzes showed arsenic levels up to 17%, infinitely higher than those of previous decades.
This means that chemicals, instead of falling into the ground, rise upwards. The water contains arsenic up to a level 300 times higher than that considered tolerable, but also non-biodegradable lead, coming from ammunition fragments, is increasing and also contaminating some animals, in particular wild boars, which therefore can no longer be hunted.
According to the scientists, the situation can only get worse, given the high levels of zinc and mercury. The problem cannot be solved either in the short or medium or long term: these substances can contaminate water and soil for 10,000 years.
The French government and the European Union control the agricultural products of the region, but for some this is neither sufficient nor effective: more accurate checks could compromise the local economy.
In reality, those who risk a lot are farmers, who sometimes run with their tractors on unexploded ammunition, but even more so the technicians who have to remove chemical weapons: despite regular checks, the accumulation of toxins in the body could only be detected when it’s too late.
The desire to recover the red zone constitutes another danger: immediately after the war the efforts of reclamation were quite superficial, because the French economy was devastated. Some communities were authorized too early to re-occupy parts of the territory still contaminated, a decision that caused human losses due to both explosives and poisonous chemicals.
And today, more than a century after the Battle of Verdun, the German offensive continues to claim victims….
Some areas formerly located within the original Zone Rouge are now being farmed and are readily accessible, even if farmers still find huge amounts of rusting munitions, some unexploded and potentially containing gas.
The coordinates 49.1949, 5.4337 point to the Verdun Memorial, just south of the destroyed towns of Douaumont and Fleury-devant-Douaumont. Parts of the ghost villages have memorials that are open to the public and tours of the Verdun battlefields. The parts in the Red Zone are strictly no-go.
Images from Web.