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The Forbidden Forest

Where the Great War continues to generate casualties

Photographs and text by Jonathan Olley

Published in the March/April 2009 issue of Orion magazine



The vast area around the French city of Verdun remains suspended in the year 1916. During the First World War, these hills and gorges were cratered by a continuous ten-month-long artillery bombardment more intense than any before and any since. The mature beech forests that cover the hills were home to some of the Great War’s most bitter fighting; as many as 150 shells fell for every square meter of this battlefield. As well as being the longest battle of the Great War, the Battle of Verdun also has the ignominy of being the first test of modern industrialized slaughter. Not for nothing was the battlefield known as “The Mincer.”

“There’s nothing like Verdun. This is a place where the world changed,” says Christina Holstein, a British historian. Over 60 million shells were fired into this area between February 21 and December 18, 1916, killing 305,440 men out of 708,777 casualties.

In the forest, in among the ruin, unexploded bombs lie everywhere. I walk inexpertly on uneven soil, the edge of one crater intersecting another, snagging my boots on what at first I assume are brambles but quickly recognize as copious strands of needle-sharp barbed wire camouflaged by sprigs of new growth. I’m being led by a small band of démineurs from the Département du Déminage through territory honeycombed with a myriad of trenches, tunnels, and mines. The French Interior Ministry estimates that at least 12 million unexploded shells reside in the hills and forests that rise above Verdun.

I had begun by treading as lightly as possible on the soft leaf litter, but I can’t keep up this way and resign myself to crashing through the undergrowth like a Friday night reveler drunk on testosterone and cheap lager. Then I see it: a rusty brown cylinder, half buried in the earth, uniform and solid and immovable. My heart pounds, and in bad French an octave higher than usual I call out to Guy, ex-navy, ex-special forces, now second in command of the local Déminage. Guy Momper has been with the Déminage since leaving the French Navy over fifteen years ago. He’s a tall, lithe man, obviously fit with a stamina and flexibility that belies his real age, his only concession to which is his almost completely gray hair, cropped short in a military fashion. The other démineurs stop their search and crowd around the shell, flattening nettles, brambles, and wire with their boots.

I detect a sudden change of mood from one of enthusiastic adventure to one of seriousness and reverence. We are all looking down at a German 155-millimeter high-explosive artillery shell about a hundred pounds in weight, as long as your arm and as thick as your thigh. I can tell it has been fired by the grooves gouged into its copper driving band, a device designed to spin the shell as it shoots out of the gun barrel. The shell appears to be in good condition despite a thin patina of orange rust. Ninety-odd years ago this shell smashed into the ground at over a thousand miles per hour; it’s been lodged here ever since, waiting to be discovered.

“This is the type of bomb that killed our friends in December,” Guy says in English without looking up. Continuing to stare at the shell, he adds, “A very difficult fuse, one wrong move and . . . pop!” With a deep sigh, he moves deliberately toward the shell and ends up positioned with a foot on either side and both hands clasped firmly around its nose, in much the same way I’ve seen people chastise a naughty pet dog. A colleague stands by, a crow bar in hand, utterly transfixed by this ancient remnant. No one else moves. With a gentle but determined tug Guy has released the shell from its earthly slumber and now has it cradled gently like a newborn. The shell is placed gingerly and expertly onto a special rack in the rear of a Land Rover.

British, French, American, and German armies fired approximately 720 million shells and mortar bombs on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918. Military experts estimate that as many as one in five rounds of ammunition fired by either side failed to explode. As a direct result of land contamination by unexploded ordinance, 16 million acres of France were cordoned o= at the end of 1918, including the 2 million acres around Verdun. Known as the Zone Rouge, they remain forbidden territory to this day. The Département du Déminage was created after the end of the Second World War to find, remove, and destroy shells and bombs from both wars. This activity has cost the department 630 démineurs to date, all killed while clearing unexploded munitions. At the current rate of clearance it is a conservative estimate that the Département du Déminage will still be finding these weapons nine hundred years from now.

Many of the shells fired contained toxic gas, and for the most part it is difficult for even the most experienced démineurs to distinguish which ones, excepting the rare occasion when the red, white, or yellow bands or crosses indicating that the munition contains gas are preserved. Often, with toxic shells held close to an ear, one is able to hear the bone-chilling swish-swish of the liquid gas as the shell is gently rocked from side to side. Shells suspected of containing gas are treated with extra caution and eventually delivered to a special bunker at the bomb depot near Pont-a-Mousson. The gas shells and bombs are particularly prone to leaking and are considered by the démineurs their most feared type of ammunition to handle, though perhaps fear is the wrong word, as the démineurs seem pretty fearless to me. In fact, I am utterly humbled by their selfless activities.

DECEMBER 2007: Laurent Flauder and Dominique Milesi from the Département du Déminage take a German 155-millimeter shell from the forest and place it in their Land Rover in exactly the same manner as Guy had during our tromp through the woods. They drive this shell and no doubt a few others some sixty kilometers to a depot in another part of the forest utilized specifically for storing old battlefield munitions. They travel along tirelessly pretty back roads, past the numerous cemeteries of French, German, and American war dead, through sleepy northern villages with their terra-cotta roofs and brown window shutters, not so much as raising a look from locals sipping afternoon pastis in the cafés that appear on almost every corner. On reaching the depot, they unlock the thick steel doors of a bunker, one of five high-ceilinged, windowless concrete structures somewhat resembling a largish house from the outside but with one main gallery space inside. The two démineurs in their static-free blue jumpsuits lift the shell from the Land Rover using a specially made contraption and walk with the shell between them toward a wooden pallet placed on the concrete floor.

All that remained whole of the men were the soles of their feet, bonded to the rough concrete, each pair facing the other in exactly the position they were in when the shell had suddenly and without warning detonated. 

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Documentary photographer Jonathan Olley's awards include two first-place prizes from the World Press Photo contest. His publications include Castles of Ulster and Kosovo. He is based in London.

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