Assessing the toxic legacy of First World War battlefields

Assessing the toxic legacy of First World War battlefields

With the passing of the 99th anniversary of the start of World War One in July, Andy Garrity considers the  substantial environmental legacy in several WWI (1914-1918) battlefields a century since the guns fell silent. Soil and marine sediment contamination has been caused by unexploded ordinance (UXO) and other warfare remnants, in addition to the incorrect disposal of the vast stockpiles that remained after the end of the war.

“Sustained and intense fighting” left a legacy of environmental contamination

WWI is renowned for its high death toll and the stalemate of trench warfare which resulted from developments in artillery and ammunition that could not be matched in armour and the movement of personnel.

As both sides slowly lost and regained territory, it has been estimated that more than one billion rounds were fired by the belligerents during the conflict[1], resulting in a devastating impact on the environment, both in terms of soil contamination and destruction of agricultural land.

Not all of the shells used exploded on impact and, in spite of some government programmes to remove these hazards, many remain in the ground. Because of their age, these are at risk of corrosion, releasing heavy metals, chemical warfare agents and explosive compounds into the environment. The Belgian army handle between 250-300 tonnes of UXO annually in their clearance scheme[2].

Following the 1918 armistice, northern France, which was an area where many of the battles of the Western Front occurred, faced a huge clean-up and restoration effort. This involved filling in trenches, removing barbed wire from 375m m2 of land and the rebuilding and repair of 293,000 dwellings and farms that were fully or partially destroyed[3].

“Soil contamination is a form of collateral damage of the First World War”

The area of destruction or régions dévastées covered 33,000 km2 including some of France’s most prized agricultural and industrial land[4]. This area of devastation was divided up into different zones, with the ‘Red Zone’ being an area deemed beyond hope of restoration. The Red Zone is still off limits to the public to this day and remains dotted with trenches and UXO. The immediate post-war clean-up programme involved the disposal of UXO and ammunition stockpiles. Meanwhile shells made out of lead, copper and brass, fuses made out of copper and zinc together with ammunition containing arsenic[5] were burned in open pits, resulting in soil concentrations of these substances above normal background levels[1][6]. Perchlorates and chlorate, along with small levels of nitroaromatic explosives are also still present in leachates in the topsoil[1]. Because of the high concentration of contaminants at these abandoned disposal sites around Belgium, France and Germany, scientists have recommended that the surrounding land should not be used for agricultural purposes.

Further soil contamination has been documented on a localised scale in topsoils resulting from battle remnants. In the Ypres battle zone, now in Belgium, elevated levels of copper and lead have been attributed to the firing of millions of shells during the conflict[2][7]. Away from the Western Front, on the former Soča front in Slovenia, elevated concentrations of copper, lead, zinc, mercury and tin have been linked to metal fragments embedded in the soil; shrapnel and bullets that have remained in the ground since fighting ceased there more than 90 years ago[8][9].

Both the French and Belgian governments are still confronting the WWI clean up, with the Red Zone in France still firmly in place. In Slovenia there has been no clean-up programme for the warfare remnants of WWI, or any of the subsequent conflicts fought in the area since.

Sea dumped munitions

Soil contamination is not the only form of environmental legacy of WWI. Alongside the open pit burning of explosives, millions of tonnes of ammunition were dumped into the sea in designated dumping grounds. In the UK, the British government dumped munitions stockpiles into Beaufort’s Dyke in the Irish Sea. The dyke is a natural undersea trench under the north channel separating southern Scotland with Northern Ireland. It is 50 km long, 3.5 km wide and 200–300 metres deep. Elevated concentrations of trace metals have been found in the sediments there[10] and there is also risk of UXO migrating away from the dumping sites and washing up on nearby coastlines[11].

The dumping of munitions at sea is now constrained by legislation[12][13] but it is necessary to monitor existing sites to determine if removal is needed and whether the risks are being properly managed.  The risk of contamination from disposal by burning in open pits has also been realised and closed systems are increasingly being used to prevent the release of contaminants into the environment; however these are still not universal.

Lessons from history

While WWI was dubbed the “war to end all wars” it instead set a precedent for modern warfare in the form of even the mass production and stockpiling of munitions and the targeting of civilian areas.

The ongoing heavy metal contamination in soils and leachates nearly a century after the conflict demonstrates the environmental persistence of some military-origin contaminants. While contemporary conflict is generally of a different character to the trench warfare of WWI, many of the heavy metals used in munitions remain the same. These have been added to by new alloys and explosives, for which data on environmental harm may be limited.

The results from WWI battlefield assessments supports the need for a comprehensive international programme of post-conflict environmental monitoring and clean-up. Crucially, new norms relating to obligations and responsibility need to be developed. The TRWP argues that peacetime norms for regulating industrial emissions could be instructive in guiding this work.

Furthermore, the potential legacy of environmental contamination from substances in munitions components should always be taken into account, not only during development, procurement and testing but also during deployment. Doing so would serve to reduce the cost of clean-up and to risks to human health and ecosystems.

Andy Garrity holds degrees in Environmental Science and Pollution Control and is a research assistant with the Toxic Remnants of War Project.

[1] Bausinger T. Bonnaire E & Preuß J. (2007) Exposure assessment of a burning ground for chemical ammunition on the Great War battlefields of Verdun, Science of the Total Environment, 382:259-271

[2] van Meirvenne M, Meklit T, Verstraete S, De Boever M. & Tack F. (2008) Could shelling in the First World War have increased copper concentrations in the soil around Ypres?, European Journal of Soil Science, 59:372-379

[3] Clout H.D (1993) The Revival of Rural Lorraine after the Great War, Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography, 75:73-91

[4] Frodin J. (1928):  ‘Frankrikes  ekonomiska  geografi efter virldskriget’,  Svensk  Geografisk Arsbok :117-145

[5] Used as a chemical agent and a smoke generator.

[6] Bausinger T & Preuß J. (2005) Environmental Remnants of the First World War: Soil Contamination of a Burning Ground for Arsenical Ammunition, Bull. Environ. Contam. Toxicol. 74:1045–1052

[7] Meerschman E, Cockx L, Monirul Islam M, Meeuws F & Van Meirvenne M. (2011) Geostatistical Assessment of the Impact of World War I on the Spatial Occurrence of Soil Heavy Metals, AMBIO, 40:417-424

[8] Souvent P. & Pirc S. (2001) Pollution caused by metallic fragments introduced into soils because of World War I activities, Environmental Geology, 40(3):317-323

[9] Pirc S, Budkovič T. (1996) Remains of World War I geochemical pollution in the landscapeEnvironmental xenobiotics.  Richardson M. (ed)  Taylor & Francis, 375-418

[10] Callaway A, Quinn R, Brown C.J, Service M & Benneti S (2011) Trace metal contamination of Beaufort’s Dyke, North Channel, Irish Sea: A legacy of ordnance disposal, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 62:2345-2355

[11] Martin J.R & Smith G (2007) Munitions Contamination of Marine Renewable Energy Sites in Scottish Waters: A Study for the Scottish Executive, QinetiQ

[12] OSPAR Convention For The Protection Of The Marine Environment Of The North-East Atlantic 1992

[13] IMO Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter 1972


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