Monday, April 09, 2007

Iron Harvest

The fields at Vimy are now lush with grass and crops, but still they bear fruits of the bitter harvest reaped ninety years ago today:

When Marcel Vion was harvesting his autumn crop of beets not long ago, the earth suddenly opened up before him, and revealed a lost tableau from 90 years before. Beneath the front wheels of his tractor, and for metres beyond, were the remains of a Canadian underground field hospital, entombed in the earth for generations.

"Sappe," the 69-year-old farmer muttered -- "tunnel" -- and hit the brakes. This was not a surprising occurrence. Two years earlier, a nearby farmhand had been knocked out cold when he'd strolled into a furrow filled with leaking mustard gas. One farmer has been killed in the past decade, and others injured, by the shells of 1916. Such is life in the farmlands below Vimy Ridge.

This town has an active munitions depot, which still receives regular, deadly deposits from the area's farmers, and its own active mine-clearing team. It contains thousands of still-lethal antiques, and its gas-leak alarm still occasionally strikes fear into the town's residents.


"Every time we go out with the plow, we turn up something from the war," says potato farmer Alfred Ansart, 73, taking a break from washing potatoes in the brick courtyard of his farm just outside the village. His small plot spent decades disgorging deadly shells, bombs and mines; in recent years, it has regularly churned up hundreds of fuses from shells, bayonets, bullets, and pieces of hardware and uniforms.

The metal objects tend to rise to the surface, damaging harvesters and plows. Somewhat lower in the ground are far worse things.

"We all know not to set the tines on our plows too deep," says Mr. Vion, the beet farmer. "If we go below a certain level, we start disturbing the soldiers down there."

Volumes of histories backed up with volumes of photographs and statistics fail to reveal the full scope of World War I as effectively as this: nearly a century on, men are still finding countless remains thereof.

Even today, bomb disposal experts are still defusing live shells, mines and grenades before careless tourists and visitors fall victim to them, all across northern France and Belgium.

The phenomenon has its own peculiar name: the iron harvest.

Let it be a lesson that the reminders of war cannot always be neatly packed away in cemeteries and cenotaphs.

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