04 December 2017

The Iron Harvest – a warning from history

The thousands of guns ranked along the Western Front during the Great War may have fallen silent a hundred years ago, but for the unwary they have left behind a terrible legacy.


It is estimated that more than a billion shells were fired during the First World War, and that as many as 30 percent of those failed to explode. Thousands of those shells contained poison gas – the terrible weapon whose use and impact is immortalised in Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et decorum est.

On the former Somme battlefield alone, the bomb disposal experts whose job it is to deal with the iron harvest – the name given by local farmers to the large number of discoveries made during the ploughing season – estimate it will take another 500 years before the area is clear and safe.

The job of finding the munitions in Belgium falls to DOVO-SEDEE, the country's bomb disposal unit, who recover approximately 200 tons each year.

The job is not without risk – more than 20 members of the unit have been killed since it was formed in 1919.

And yet surprisingly many visitors to the battlefields and the CWGC’s cemeteries, despite the warnings, decide such items make perfect battlefield souvenirs.

In recent times, nearly all of the main transport carriers to and from the continent have had to deal with cases of unexploded ordnance being transported through customs.

A spokesperson for Eurostar recently told CWGC: “We are having real problems in Paris, Lille and Brussels with people taking shells, bullets and other bits and pieces. It is causing disruption and inconvenience to our passengers as the stations have to be evacuated and services delayed.

“Even though we have people showing passengers the types of things that are banned before they get to the security screening area, people are putting stuff in their cases and this is always detected by the super sensitive x-ray equipment.  It is either destroyed or confiscated so there is no advantage to the collector or to anyone else.

“This is not happening a few times a year –but sometimes a few times a day at our continental stations.”

The CWGC’s own gardening staff in France and Belgium also encounter the iron harvest while maintaining the cemeteries. This year, in Belgium alone, there have been almost a dozen discoveries. We have well established procedures for such finds and in every case, we leave the items to the experts of the bomb disposal units.

So, please visit our sites BUT please stay safe and leave any items you find alone. Please also don’t try to bring such items – active or not – home with you. There’s no place for the iron harvest in your luggage.  

Senior Captain Maarten Verburg, from DOVO-SEDEE, said: “Although munitions found in the iron harvest may have an old and rusty appearance, looks are definitely deceiving. Indeed, most of the ammunitions found are fully functional.

“We must also not forget that between 10 or 15% of the ammunitions recovered in Flanders fields have a toxic payload and that many of these old chemical weapons have a high risk of leaking.

“Therefore it is paramount not to touch or move any explosive remnants of war.

“When found, we ask people to call the police for further action. In Belgium, police forces can be notified by calling 101.”

For more about the Belgium bomb disposal unit's work, click here to watch the full video.

Thank you to DOVO-SEDEE for supplying the video.

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