The endless battle

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by Giovanni Masini. Pictures of  Ivo Saglietti.

From Verdun (France)

“It happens everyday”. Michel Thouvenin crosses his arms and looks to the barley field on his left.

“When I pass with the tractor, the plowshare continuously unearths bombs of the Great War: grenades, chemical bombs, small and medium calibers. I find some of them every week”.

With his 64 years and the harmless look of someone who spent his life growing cabbages and potatoes, Thouvenin is definitely not the kind of man you would expect to see bustling about weapons forbidden by all the international conventions. However, fortuitously, his fields rise right on the hills where 100 years ago some of the most bloody battles of the First World War were fought. And where still today the remnants of war are a deadly threat.

“60 millions of shots were fired in Verdun. Many of them are still in the wood, unexploded”

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Along all the 700 kilometers of the west front, from the beaches of the English Channel to the Swiss frontier, between the German and  the Anglo-French trenches, big and small caliber guns shot explosives and toxic substances on the enemies’ emplacements. During the first mass conflict in the history the chemical weapons were not forbidden yet and millions of people became victims of the toxic gasses. But the rests of that massacre are not vanished yet, and the farmers of the region know it well.

“It often happens that the hunters’dogs enter in the holes and they never get out, killed by the poisonous steams that are still trapped in the subsoil – Thouvenin tells – And in the contaminated areas I cannot grow even a grain spike: the soil is dead, it is impossible to grow something on it”.

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After the armistice in 1918, the French Government acquired some of the areas where the most bloody battles took place and started a wide reclaim operation of the soil, strewed with corps and millions of  ammunition exploded or not. Still today, however, wide areas of the farmland in the Great East Region hide the rests of that terrible massacre. The major danger is the chemical weapons contamination, that pushes the transalpine authorities to establish several “red zones” where the access is strictly prohibited to the civilians. This is the case of the place-à-gaz of Spincourt, a clearing in the wood where in 1928 200 thousand chemical weapons were burnt: in 2007 a study by the Mainz University detected dangerously high levels of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals in the soil. Right where, for decades from the second postwar, the hunters and the foresters stopped to have breakfast and rest after a working day, now there is an enclosure raised by the military authorities and a sign with the threatening message: “Do not get close to the contaminated soil”.

The costs and the time necessary for the reclamation are prohibitive: where the ammunition depository rose the soil will be contaminated for thousands of years, and the unexploded bullets are simply too many to be retrieved. Le Monde estimated that only in Verdun, where an area as wide as Paris was completely destroyed, at least the 15% of the bullets shot never exploded.

There are real bombs lying silently hidden in the wood or in the fields, and that in many cases are still potentially lethal. But if many people found them by chance there are also many who go in search of these bombs. Unlike the Italian “retrievers”, on the French battlefields there are especially collectors and hobbyists, who comb the woods during their free time.

Two of them agree to meet us right out of the Thiaucourt village, in the Meurthe and Moselle department. They refuse to reveal their identity because their passion, even if inspired by a scientific interest, is unlawful.

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Walking on the ground impregnated by the October rain, they unearth the bombs, recognising them one by one just like if they can call them by their names: “French shot especially 75 mm bombs, while the Germans left also assault weapons and bullets with a bigger caliber – the leader of the expedition tells – But my passion are the traditional weapons assembled right in the trenches with the available materials: those are a real gem”.

The Vincey military museum collects many of the donations of military material. Here the curators Pascal Lener and Octave Spinazzè spend their free time classifying with passion relics from every war. “Even where the reclamation was done – Lener  explains – the soil still gives us back weapons and military artifacts: barbed wire and mesh fences. It is estimated that during the First World War more than 1450 shots where fired, 60 of which only in the Verdun battle”.


ivo_saglietti Pictures by Ivo Saglietti

Born in Toulon, France, he started in Turin as a cameraman, realizing some political and social reportage. In 1975 he began taking photos, working in the streets and in the squares of the protest and in 1977 he moved to Paris. Then he started his journeys as a reporter-photographe, at the beginning with French photo agencies, and then with American photo agencies and international magazines (Newsweek, Der Siegel, Time, The New York Times ), covering crisis and conflict scenarios in Latin America, Africa, Balkans, Middle-East. Read the whole bio