Muddy fields dating
In fact their so-called ‘Iron Harvests’ are bigger now than they were several decades ago, largely because the farmers have heavier and more sophisticated tractors that plough much deeper, and because more construction work is taking place in the towns and villages along the old Western Front.
Last year alone the Belgian military collected 105 tons of munitions, many containing toxic chemicals, and the French police, who run a similar collection service out of a base near Arras, 80 tons. Sometimes, when a long-lost arms cache or depot is discovered, the total is higher still.
Next, from the back of a cobbled farmyard, the team collects no fewer than 37 shells of various makes and sizes, some containing gas, and about 50 grenades turned ochre by their long entombment in the earth.
As Vanparys says, ‘The three richest countries in the world at that time [Britain, Germany and France] went bankrupt in four years through producing so much war material.’ Moreover most of the shelling occurred along a front line that changed very little during those four years.
Every year or two a farmer detonates a shell while ploughing his fields and destroys if not himself, then at least his tractor.
More would be killed or wounded were it not for the fact that they almost always plough in the same direction, giving the buried shells glancing blows that gradually nudge them into line so their noses are less likely to be hit.
‘It’s a fairly typical day,’ he says as his team returns to its base with its haul.
Nearly 100 years on the Belgian and French authorities are still clearing up the debris of the Great War.
In 2004, for example, 3,000 German artillery shells were found at a single site in Dadizele, east of Ypres.