Zone Rouge: A First World War legacy still with us today



The zone rouge (red zone) is a chain of sporadic areas throughout northeastern France that the French government isolated after the First World War. The land, which originally covered more than 1,200 square kilometres (460 sq mi), was deemed to be physically and environmentally too damaged by the conflict for human habitation of any kind.

Rather than attempt to clean up these former battlefields, the land was allowed to return to nature and though the size of the zone has shrunk over the last hundred years, astoundingly, restrictions within the zone rouge still exist today and the areas just as dangerous and just as tightly controlled as they were in 1918.

The "zone rouge" was defined just after the armistice as "Completely devastated. Damage to properties: 100%. Damage to Agriculture: 100%. Impossible to clean. Human life impossible".


Under French law, activities such as housing, farming or forestry, are permanently forbidden in the zone rouge, in some areas, access of any kind if permanently prohibited. This is because of the vast amounts of human and animal remains and millions of items of unexploded ordnance still contaminating the land. Six villages, finding themselves in the middle of the worst areas of the red zone around Verdun, were never permitted to rebuild after the war and today remain uninhabited.

                             
The remains of two villages, site of the commune is maintained as a testimony to war 
and is officially designated as a "village that died for France.

The French government have formed a special agency dedicated entirely to the ongoing munitions clearing, called the Department du Deminage. Over the decades they have managed to reduce the size of the red zone and return less affected areas to civilian and agricultural use. Until the mid 1970s, however, much of the 'clean-up' was only done superficially, destroying hundreds of thousands of unexamined WWI chemical shells without considering the leaks and contamination to the soil and water.

The worst affected areas remain full of unexploded shells (including many gas shells), grenades, and rusty ammunition. Soils remain heavily polluted by lead, mercury, chlorine, various dangerous gases, acids, human and animal remains. Some areas are also littered by ammunition depots and chemical plants.

Each year dozens of tons of unexploded shells are recovered and, according to the Sécurité Civil agency in charge, at the current rate no fewer than 700 more years will be needed to completely clean the area. Some experiments conducted in 2005-06 discovered up to 300 shells / 10.000m² in the top 15cm of soil in the worst areas.

Some areas remain off limits (for example two small pieces of land close to Ypres and Woevre) where 99% of all plant life still dies as arsenic can amount up to 17% according to recent detailed soil samples -tens of thousand times higher than levels typically found previously within the red zones.


Cleaning up the areas doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re safe either. Nor are areas that were not included in the original Zone Rouge; the Iron harvest, which uncovers unexploded ordnance, barbed wire, shrapnel, bullets and congruent trench supports, still occurs every year across North France and Belgium and continue to turn up new finds.

Farmers in less dangerous re-populated “yellow” and “blue zones”, still hit shells every year, detonating under their tractors and narrowly escaping death by the remains of a hundred year old war. In Verdun, there are road signs to indicate official dumping grounds for farmers to leave the shells they’ve plowed up on their land to be collected by the authorities.



Since the end of the war, almost 1000 people have been killed by unexploded WW1 ordnance across France and Belgium, with the most recent deaths as late as 2014 when two construction workers were killed by an unexploded bomb on a building site in Belgium.