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A Poisoned Memorial To World War I: The Forests Of Verdun

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The guns of World War I fell silent 100 years ago here, but a quiet battle still smolders on in this forest. Roots of trees and arms of ivy grapple with the legacy of four years of war, fighting to reclaim the landscape from the scars of a past conflict.

WWI left behind a broken landscape: shell holes, trenches and soil sown with years of unexploded bombs. Today a forest blankets the battlefields. But it cloaks perhaps millions of dud shells, tens of thousands of bodies and one of the most toxic sites in France.

The front lines crisscrossed the fields of Verdun for almost the duration of WWI. Some 60 million shells were fired during the 10-month battle here from February to December 1916.

“The optimistic rate is that one in eight did not explode. That means that we probably have between seven and eight million shells that did not explode on the battlefield of Verdun,” said Guillaume Moizan, 34, a local historian and guide. “The pessimistic way would be to say one in four did not explode.”

The destruction was total. A postwar report on these battlefields described the land as: “Completely devastated. Damage to properties: 100%. Damage to Agriculture: 100%. Impossible to clean. Human life impossible.”

The French government’s response was to declare vast tracts of northern France off limits, creating a “zone rouge” or red zone.

“All the battlefield sites where the French government thought it would be too expensive to clean the soil to have it restored back to farming land were declared zone rouge,” said Guillaume Rouard, a ranger with France’s National Forests Office (ONF).

“From the North Sea to the Franche-Comté (Swiss border) we estimate that there were 150,000 hectares that were declared red zone and a large part was given back to agriculture,” he added.

Much of the rest was eventually forested. Planted with German pine from the Black Forest as part of war reparations, the forest of Verdun was, from its inception, a symbol of healing and commemoration.

“It’s allowed us to conserve all that’s around you, the holes, the trenches — we’re in one of the rare zones in France where you can walk like it was in 1918,” Rouard said. “That wasn’t really the objective right after the war. The objective was more to give a sense of production to this landscape destroyed by war.”

Today it holds a different role. Bunkers and trenches hide among the trees, jutting out of the undergrowth, paying silent witness to the 300,000 French and German men who died here.

The stony ruins of the area’s nine villages, devastated during the war, lie dotted around the forest. One of them, Fleury, changed hands 16 times during the battle. Officially, they have “died for France.”

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