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This World War I Battlefield Is a Haunting Reminder of the Environmental Costs of War

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The battlefield of Verdun is part of France's Zone Rouge, cordoned off since the end of WWI. Oeuvre personnelle / Wikimedia Commons

World War I ended 100 years ago on Sunday, but 42,000 acres in northeast France serve as a living memorial to the human and environmental costs of war.

The battle of Verdun was the longest continuous conflict in the Great War, and it so devastated the land it took place on that, after the war, the government cordoned it off-limits to human habitation. What was once farmland became the Zone Rouge, or Red Zone, as National Geographic reported.


An excellent Twitter thread by writer Paul Cooper, excerpted here, explains more:

100 years later, humans still don't live in the Zone Rouge, which is so thick with unexploded shells that a French government agency called the Department du Deminage is still at work clearing them. The Department handles shells from World War II as well, and from other areas, but the Zone Rouge is especially saturated.

"They reckon that they have 300 years work ahead of them before they have cleared the whole battlefield," British historian and author Christina Holstein told National Geographic. "And they never will."

Hugh Whitfeld produced a video for Australia's 7 News highlighting their Sisyphean task:

For much of the area, the years without human presence have had a restorative impact on the land, transforming the Zone Rouge into a forested green zone.

"To their surprise, they found the vegetation—trees, grasses, bushes and briars—all came back very quickly," Holstein told National Geographic. Verdun was also intentionally reforested with German pine sent from the Black Forest as part of reparations following the war, CNN reported.

The area is a now a favored spot for hunters of wild boar and deer and a source of timber for France, as well as de facto memorial to the villages whose ruins remain amid the trees.

"Because it has been abandoned and covered with trees, it is a microcosm of something that happened a hundred years ago," Holstein told National Geographic. "It is a bit like Sleeping Beauty. Things have just gotten frozen in time."

However, one part of the Zone Rouge has not recovered. This is the La place a Gaz (the gas place), a shack in a clearing surrounded by razor wire where companies burned unused gas shells after the war.

"They burned it for years, basically for the entire 1920s and we never thought about the consequences," area historian Guillaume Moizan told CNN.

It is still one of the most toxic sites in France. The arsenic levels in the soil are 35,000 times higher than normal and some parts of the soil are 17.5 percent arsenic, according to a 2007 study. Little grows there, even now.

Conflicts since World War I have continued to devastate the environments of the countries where they were fought, from Vietnam to Iraq. The U.S. Department of Defense is in fact the world's biggest polluter. Today, La place a Gaz serves as a chilling reminder that, when governments order their armies into battle, they are not just killing the enemy—they are killing the earth we will all share long after the guns have fallen silent.

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