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Mustard gas blisters and a daily risk of death

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BerichtGeplaatst: 06 Mrt 2014 10:19    Onderwerp: Mustard gas blisters and a daily risk of death Reageer met quote

Mustard gas blisters and a daily risk of death: Bravery of soldiers still clearing the 'iron harvest' of World War I shells from beneath Flanders' fields

Belgian DOVO army squad collects and destroys mines and shells still active after a century
Fields littered with tens of thousands of unexploded shells, some with deadly chemical weapons like mustard gas
Work to clear as many mines as possible for events marking 100th anniversary of World War I next year
In 2012 160 tonnes of munitions unearthed from under Ypres, including bullets, stick grenades, naval gun shells

The Duke of Edinburgh will represent the Queen and his country on Armistice Day tomorrow at what will signal the beginning of a year of extraordinary remembrance and commemoration ahead of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One.

He will be in Ypres in Belgium - 'Wipers' to the legions of men who suffered and died in the cauldron of the infamous salient - as thousands of families across Britain prepare for pilgrimages next year to the battlefields where their ancestors held the line against the Germans determined to expel them.

The guns fell silent long ago. But the tranquil beet, wheat and potato fields of Flanders still harbour the whizz-bangs, toffee apples, moaning minnies, Jack Joneses and a terrible plethora of other devices given jocular names by the troops who suffered grievously under their downfall.

An estimated 300million of the billion projectiles the British and the Germans hurled at each other in the immortal salient - still the biggest graveyard of the British Army - were duds, and most of them have not been recovered.

Last year close to 160 tonnes of them were unearthed from the below-sea-level soil around Ypres - from bullets to stick grenades to colossal 15 inch naval gun shells capable of tearing down an entire city block. This is the equivalent of five fully-loaded articulated lorries.

The Daily Mail was granted the privilege of being the last newspaper to be allowed to accompany the brave men of the Belgium army whose job it is to harvest this ferrous crop of death. As their work tempo increases ahead of the influx of tourists expected next year, the unit whose motto is 'I Do Not Fear Dangers', cannot spare any more time to publicise its unique trade.

'You're the last,' said Dirk Gunst, a 2nd Lieutenant with the DOVO squad charged with collecting and destroying these lethal relics from a war which felled nine million men along with three empires and the sureties of the Edwardian age.

'We just don't have the time. We are expecting thousands of people next year and we have to gather up as much as we can before then and request tourists to leave anything they see in the ground.'

His is not an exaggerated plea. The iron harvest continues to kill and maim. Over 20 of his comrades have died since the unit was formed in 1919, four of those in 1986 when a massive German mortar blew up after it was transported to the unit's depot in fields near the sleepy hamlet of Poelkappele.

Ten years ago, two teenagers who took a blowtorch to a British 6lb high explosive shell in a bid to tear off the brass driving band - fitted to make the projectile spin through the air and traditionally collected by locals to turn into trinkets and jewellery - were blown to smithereens.

There is at least one fatality a year, many more injuries, when shells fired nearly a century ago suddenly decide to end their long hibernation and detonate.

Even Dirk's men, who work in teams of three, have suffered burns from mustard and phosgene gas shells that were split open and leaking their caustic contents.

'We fear no danger but we don't go in for heroics,' said Dirk, whose HQ is testament to the numerous fiendish ways the warring parties of the 'Great War' developed to kill one another.

'Look at this one,' he says, holding up a shell cut away to reveal a dark green glass vessel inside the colour of an old beer bottle.

'This was a German shell, not gas, but it contains an agent that causes vomiting the instant you smell it.

'The Germans would fire these at the British front line; then men would hurriedly put their gas masks on. But many would have to remove them as they began to vomit - and then the Germans would lob over the real gas shells to catch the troops without their respirators.'

The shells, fuses, grenades, mines, mortars, bullets and blocks of ammonal explosive and TNT left behind by the titanic armies which fought around Ypres become more unstable with each passing day.

Some 70 men of the DOVO unit hold the line against these rotting weapons of total war as firmly as the men who fired them held their own ground at places whose names made the world hold its breath.

'We have a system in place with the police and the fire brigade,' said Dirk, 40, who has served with the Belgian army in Laos dismantling the ordnance left behind by the Americans in their lost war against Vietnam.

'Outcalls are prioritised as urgent - say shells found near a school or a busy crossroads - or those churned out by a farmer and left lying at the edge of a lonely field which don't require such immediate attention.

'All these,' he said, waving his arm at the serried ranks of defused devices large and small which stand like iron sentinels in the unit's lecture room, 'are our learning tools. We can tell a high explosive from a white phosphorous shell - usually. But even we get caught out.'

Suddenly his lecture is interrupted by a phone call. Thirty minutes down the road - a distance which the combined forces of the British empire took four years to traverse - a potato processing plant has turned up a 'large' projectile. Men are working there, the call is treated as urgent and Dirk is soon on the scene.

'French 105mm,' he proclaims. The shell stands upright on a forklift pallet, caked in the kind of 'rusticles' that adorn sunken ships, but definitely identifiable as a shell.

Dirk is angry. 'People get blase about these things,' said the father-of-three. 'They have stood it upright, which was not how it was found. No shell should be touched unless it is by us. Not only could the fuse suddenly decide to do its work, the shell might be toxic, or even the outside may be contamined by chemical weapons that have lain in the soil next to it.

'My men have suffered mustard gas burns in the past to prove how dangerous they are.'

The French 105 was left to teeter on its precarious plinth as the unit moved on to another grave of ammunition - a bed of British six pound high explosive shells unearthed by a backhoe during farmyard building work near Zonnebeke.

The shells were in rows, meaning they were probably arranged for firing when the gun crew that planned to shoot them off had to retire or advance before they could be loaded and sent on their way.

That or the gunners themselves were blown to smithereens before they could set to their work.

Another call sends the unit to the old German front line at Langenmarck where German hand grenades - 'Fritz sticks' - have been found along with a batch of deadly white phosphourous shells. Phosphorous burns in air so the shells are placed in vats of water; they, like all the chemical weapons discovered across the salient, require special handling to be destroyed.

All munitions handled by the unit are placed in small lorries carrying sand to reduce vibration en route back to HQ. Once there, the shells which are suspected to contain chemicals are subjected to X-Ray in a giant machine and, if found to be toxic, are then scrutinised by a neutron-induced gamma spectroscope which can identify which kind of poison lies within the corroded casings.

In vast sheds the detritus of this war which is burned into the psyche of every Briton awaits its final end. Some of it will be defused, the explosives steamed out and the fuses made safe. These projectiles will join the other 'teaching aids' for the UXB men.

The rest of the conventional shells are taken out to a lonely field bordered by earthen banks to be detonated in controlled explosions.

But the chemical weapons are handed over to a civilian contractor for destruction after they have been rendered into fluid by a freezing process. This either involves the residue being detonated in a huge vacuum chamber or being burned in furnaces equipped with numerous filters that traps and neutralises all toxins.

Close to five per cent of the shells the armies used were gas in WW1. Consequently Dirk and his men find themselves 'suiting up' in anti-chemical coveralls and helmets at least once a week.

'The toxic ones are the worst,' said Cpl. Nico Sierens, assigned to sorting through the rusting metal dump, separating the merely lethal from the lethal and sinister. 'Gas shells are not filled with gas but a liquid that burns on contact. One of the guys here suffered horrible phosgene gas burns a while back.

'You may think you know what every shell contains but you never do - that's why we need the X-Rays. No-one would thank us if we sent up a huge cloud of mustard gas in a controlled explosion.

'It takes steady nerves to work all day with unexploded bombs but we are all used to it. Its our job. We don't tend to dwell on it too much. I say we are handling history here every day.'

And they are. Lying among the shells and grenades, the mortars and the TNT blocks, are fragments of German and British kit, buttons, water bottles, ammo cases from the Ruhr with the name of the company which made the contents stamped on the side - the human element to a war devoid, for the most part, of all humanity.

'The war here was unique in many ways and that is why there is still so much stuff in the ground,' added Cpl. Sierens. 'It was virtually static for four years so the shells fell in a confined area. The ground was marshy and boggy, meaning many buried themselves after being fired or whole transports of them were lost en-route to where they were meant to be going.

'And then there was the quality of the ammunition itself. The factories of the combatants were turning out fuses and shells at a colossal rate and the quality was poor. It all added up to an enormous amount of misfires and the job that we have today.'

While much of the iron harvest comes in ones and twos, sometimes there are spectacular finds: in 2004 3,100 German artillery shells were discovered in a single place at Dadziele, east of the salient. And the ordnance men have mapped out sites for future exploration where they believe even greater quantities of unspent munitions still lie.

The shells are discovered in a myriad of ways: through farm-work, renovations of old buildings, road construction or simply the roots of trees pushing their unwanted neighbours slowly to the surface.

They were all designed to kill soldiers but they have, since 1918, claimed the lives of 360 people and injured 535 more around Ypres. In March this year seven labourers, policemen and firemen were hospitalised when a German gas shell exploded during cable-laying work in nearby Warneton.

The shells which fall into the hands of Dirk and his men are detonated daily with a chunk of TNT and an anti-tank mine on the site of their command post. A siren rings out across the flat land and then there is a tremendous roar; an echo back in time to what it was like for virtually every minute of every day of the war, only replayed on a scale thousands of times greater.

In 100 years the successors to Dirk and his men will still be doing their job of cleaning up after the men who fought and died in these corners of foreign fields.
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