Still Restricted 100 Years Later- The “Zone Rouge” (Red Zone) in France from WWI

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Prior to seeing the beautiful photo expose on MessyNezzyChic, I had no idea this place existed in the world (especially surprising, considering the 30+ times I’ve been to France on business). The “Zone Rouge” is “forsaken territory” from the first World War following the old front lines from trench warfare. The zone is filled with unknown amounts of human remains and a near impossible level of un-exploded munitions, both conventional and chemical.

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Farmers in less dangerous re-populated “yellow” and “blue zones”, still hit shells every year, exploding their tractors and narrowly escaping death by the remains of a hundred year old war. In Verdun, there are road signs to indicate a dumping grounds for farmers to leave the shells they’ve plowed up on their land to be collected by authorities.

The photography of Oliver Saint Hilaire is a poignant look into the remnants of a catastrophic war. Hit the link (or click any of the photos) to be taken to the original article. oliviersainthilaire_le_poison_inconnu-28-930x620



Nathan S.

One of TFB’s resident Jarheads, Nathan now works within the firearms industry. A consecutive Marine rifle and pistol expert, he enjoys local 3-gun, NFA, gunsmithing, MSR’s, & high-speed gear. Nathan has traveled to over 30 countries working with US DoD & foreign MoDs.

Nathan can be reached at Nathan.S@TheFirearmBlog.com

The above post is my opinion and does not reflect the views of any company or organization.


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  • Kevin Harron

    Interesting article. Thanks for the share.

    Kinda sad that war gasses are still killing those that are trying to clean them up 100 years later.

    • SP mclaughlin

      I’d hope civilians their can have gas masks, or should at lest be given them.

      • iksnilol

        IIRC correctly gas masks are restricted in France. Falls under category 3: Protections against millitary gas.

        • Chrome Dragon

          Given the political climate surrounding chemical weapons, I’m a little shocked by this.

          Also, the difference between military gas mask and industrial ones is really quite narrow.

          • iksnilol

            It surprised me too.

    • Tom

      The nature of the gases used in WWI means you would be better off running than trying to put on a mask.

  • TheSmellofNapalm

    Is it not standard protocol with other nations to retrieve fallen bodies like it is with US armed forces?

    • Anton Gray Basson

      May not be worth the risk

      • Kivaari

        If possible they recovered bodies and had graves registration teams map where they fell. Sometimes it takes years to move known remains to a proper burial site. We still work to find our soldiers from Vietnam, Korea and WW2 battle fields.

    • 6.5x55Swedish

      During the war it was not easy to retrieve the bodies, the manpower was needed elsewhere. After the war they were busy building up the nations again, focus was on having houses for the living rather than sereach for dead people. Armies of the time also had less knowledge of the exact whereabouts of all soldiers.

    • Michael

      We’re talking 1.4 million French men shred into pieces and buried among countless duds and whatnot along the western front line. Might have not been that easy considering the a third of France was in ruin and the Germans made sure to destroy all the coal mines in their way out.

    • Canadian Vet

      Given the state of battlefield medicine at the time and the sheer scale of the casualties in the mass attacks that characterize trench warfare, the priority of evacuation would have most likely started with those most likely to survive their wounds and going down from there, with officers in any state jumping the queue.

      And given the attack-counter-attack nature of trench warfare, the no man’s land could be crossed by troops from either side at any given time, so stretcher-bearers tended to make themselves scarce the moment a counter-attack was even hinted. As such, God only knows how many guys died of their wounds out there.

      And while I’m not really versed in the way they handled their logistics, I can only assume that when the front moved forward there would be cleared safe lanes through the no man’s land for that purpose quite likely partially cleared the inadvertent “Polish minesweeper” way.

    • iksnilol

      That’s a recent trend. “Back in the day” it wasn’t usual to retrieve bodies of your own.

      Even Americans didn’t do it.

    • marathag

      Google ‘Waterloo Teeth’

    • Kivaari

      Remember how the poppies bloomed the following spring after major battles. The dead were churned into the soil. No mans land was littered with thousands of men and beasts.

    • Grindstone50k

      The US has many cemeteries in France to this day.

  • Jack Morris

    I wish I could find a warhead in my garden. Damn French, having all that fun with their cheese and cigarettes and hazardous war relics.

    • Canadian Vet

      I wouldn’t want to stumble on UXO on my property. After a hundred years, those rounds are one nasty game of Russian roulette. If you’re in luck, the payload won’t go off; if you’re SOL, it’ll have become so unstable that the slightest shock will set it off.

      • Hudson

        Some friends who do Revolutionary War reenacting went to France for the Bicentennial (1976). They went on a battle field tour, one of them was sitting on a bench taking in the view, and was swinging his leg back and forth, kicking the ground, one of the others yelled at him to stop, Why?, he was kicking a grenade! And this was in a public viewing area.

        • wzrd1

          I’d not be supremely concerned over an ancient hand grenade. The composition B degrades over time and if the striker engaged, it’s unlikely that the fuze would be viable.

          Now, if it still had its pin in, I’d be concerned greatly. It may still be functional and the pin heavily rusted.
          Mortar, artillery and iron bombs are quite a different thing entirely. Even today, some of those still detonate when EOD is working on them.

          • avconsumer2

            Your knowledge is great and all, but guess who’s not gonna be kicking any grenades…. this guy.

    • iksnilol

      No, no you don’t. You dont’ want to find UXOs or landmines. Those things kill people and many mines are even specially designed to kill EOD people (no or low metal mines are a prime example).

      Sorry if I can’t be funny in regards to one of the worst weapons ever made.

  • Matt

    When I was a kid we found a warhead in Lake St. Clair from the Vietnam era. It had fallen off an airplane and into the lake. We called the coast guard and they disposed of it.

  • Bill

    PBS had a really good documentary on the post-Civil War efforts to locate and bury the KIA – imagine what places like Gettysburg would have been like.

  • MR

    That’s quite a bit of un-rehabilitated land, especially in a developed first-world country.

    • Steve

      I wouldn’t worry too much about that. With the level of Islamic immigration and non-integration of the invaders France will be a third world nation very soon. On a brighter note, those millions of shells can be recycled for the civil war that must certainly eventuate?

      • MR

        Civil war? I think you mean “capitulation”.

        • The Stig

          Caliphatization?

          • MR

            Things didn’t work out so well when the French government joined the Nazi cause, but I don’t know that that’ll scare them away from becoming the basis for the Islamic State In Europe.

      • mikewest007

        “With the level of Islamic immigration” there’ll be always someone to dispose of that stuff! 😛
        “Hey Ahmad, there’s a lot of mortar shells out there, can you…” *BOOM!* “Uh, yeah. So, Abdul, can you go and pick those and bits of Abdul up? We’d be…” *BOOM!* “Ali, Ali, Ali, wait. Try a pitchfork. That should be a little safer…” *BOOM!* “…or not.”

  • ScoreDude

    Growing up, we had a quarter of ground that was apparently either an ammo dump, or gunnery range during WWII. Every time we chiseled or disced, it took little to no effort to find .50 brass, corroded as hell, obviously. Can’t imagine having to think about uxo, though. Probably make for some cheap ground, if you’re brave, lol.

  • GVD

    As a belgian, I can only laugh at this. We don’t really have no-go zones and some of the worst fighting was on belgian soil.
    Here farmers still routinely dig up UXO. Most of the farmers have been trained by DOVO to distinguish between chemical and conventional munition. Conventional munition they generally just pile next to the road & DOVO comes to pick it up once a week.

    It’s only when farmers or construction workers dig up very large bombs or chemical ones that DOVO intervenes immediately.
    The current UXO stockpile at DOVO demining facilities is around 10 years worth of work to render harmless. And we find more each passing day.

    • ScoreDude

      yowzers

    • An Interested Person

      For me as an American, that level of UXO is literally incomprehensible.

  • TDog

    There’s a fantastic book on the subject called “Aftermath” by Donovan Webster. It really opens one’s eyes to the nature and impact of the remnants of war, especially UXO.

    • Ray_G

      Concur, was going to post on that book after seeing this in the email-a really good book and the chapter on WW1 France is fascinating.

  • idahoguy101

    Remains of Verdun dead were gathered and entombed. You can visit them. In that one WW1 battle 3/4 of a million dead

    • Not all of the remains were removed. Hence why there is debate on how many were killed. Some estimates show a 100,000 missing and presumed dead.

  • BattleshipGrey

    Serious questions: Not that it would be practical to do it, but was re-bombing the area ever on the table? In some sense you’d think it would encourage unstable UXO to finally go off. I just don’t know enough about the nature of the chemical ordnances and how they would react upon the nearby public, which is partially why I’m asking. Would re-bombing be a more plausible option if the chem-bombs weren’t there? I’m assuming some of the gasses would travel with the wind while others would hang about and eventually dissipate, or would they contaminate everything faster?

    • Dan

      I would think that would work just dandy for regular explosive ordinance, I would not want to find out the hard way with the chemical stuff

      • Canadian Vet

        No, not really on all accounts.

        Munitions this old, of all types, are completely unpredictable. That’s why they need to be dealt with extremely carefully and thoroughly, in a systematic manner that leaves nothing to chance. Dropping more explosives on them might do the job and destroy some of the UXO. But on the other hand, it could also spread them even further.

        And while incineration is a way that has been used to destroy chemical agents, it is usually done under very tightly controlled conditions and in a way that leaves nothing to chance. Indiscriminate bombardment might be enough to remove the threat of sone of those munitions, but the blast might just compromise the casing of others. Others in which the agent hasn’t naturally decayed or broken down and then you’ll be spreading a chemical weapon downwind.

        The way technology is at this time, there’s only one way to do this: by hand and using conventional methods. The only way I can think of that might speed up the process would be the use of “mad pits” as I saw used in Afghanistan to deal with UXO and captured enemy irdnance by job lots.

    • iksnilol

      I am afraid that re-bombing could introduce more UXOs (from the new bombing) and could spread the bombs that don’t explode.

      Though it is a good idea.

      • BattleshipGrey

        Considering the advancement of drone technology, you’d think they could observe “x” amount of bombs being dropped in a specific zone to make sure they all go off, and pinpoint via gps the new UXO if there was one.

    • wzrd1

      A fair amount of the chemical weapons was mustard gas, lewisite, adamsite and other rather long stable chemicals. Chlorine was also in common usage, although not so much via bombs.

      It’s not a very good idea to release those chemicals, even today.
      Indeed, poison gas still leeches from the soil in that zone.

  • Cymond

    I was also going to post a link to this, it’s a great listen with an interesting perspective. I highly recommend it to anyone new to learning about WW1.

  • Why can’t they assign army units to minesweep the area? Sure it would be slow going but eventually they could reclaim the land for use.

    • Tom

      Simple put money. France is not exactly hurting for space so why bother spending the money when there is no shortage of land that can be used.

    • Mike

      Here on Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan there are still minefields that haven’t been cleared on base. They just cordoned off the area and put up signs. I found that strange the first time I saw it, but I guess sometimes it just makes more sense not to clean it up.

  • Mystick

    Thank you…

  • An Interested Person

    As much as I would love to wander through there and see the somewhat un-touched history, the other part of me doesn`t want to be “that new American corpse” on the French news cycle…

    Sounds absurdly dangerous, mostly from the chemical weapons.