Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Remembrance of Things Blast

Last Wednesday's WSJ featured an article about the remnants of World War I still surfacing in places like Ypres, Belgium.

The region saw (depending on how you count them) nine major battles during the course of 1917, as the allies fought to capture the town of Passchendaele, and the Germans tried to bleed the Allies dry in a war of attrition. Some half a million men died in the area during 1917, and as many as 15 million shells were fired in what became one of the most heavily shelled regions in military history.

Today, a 120 man bomb disposal unit from the Belgian army works the area year round. When live munitions are found (usually on a construction site or by a farmer plowing his fields) the unit is called in. There are too many munitions found each year for the soldiers to dispose of them in place. In stead the pack the shells in sand and haul them back to the military base, where shells are carefully identified before demolition. Shells containing poison gas are carefully drained under hazmat procedures. Then the shells are blown up. The soldiers have to stop work whenever a train passes downwind in case they fail to identify a gas shell before demolishing it.

While bomb disposal units in most of deal with the occasional unexploded bomb or shell from one of the world wars, the disposal unit in Ypres processes 330 tons on munitions in the average year, and this year is already looking like producing a record haul.

Many of the sites they clean up are ad hoc ammo depots of 12-20 artillery shells abandoned by one side or another. The scattered munitions cause a steady stream of 2-3 civilian casualties a year. Last year, two construction workers tried sawing through what they thought was an old pipe. It turned out to be an artillery shell which blew up, killing one and injuring the other. Two years ago, Mr. Cardoen-Descamps (who owns a farm and runs a museum/bed and breakfast with his wife) plowed over a buried shell in his field. The blow blade cut the shell open and struck a spark against the casing, sending a 30-foot-high flame into the air. A friend of his had a similar experience this year, which sent a piece of shrapnel clear through his tractor, but left the farmer unharmed.

As we approach the hundredth anniversary of the Great War, and it's events become a matter of history rather than memory, these explosive remnants of things past live on.

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