Somewhere in northern France is a forest with a strange ambiance that may send an unexplained shiver up one’s spine. It could be the leaves that litter the unnaturally uneven forest floor. Or perhaps it is the mist that hovers above its open spaces in the autumn. Whatever it is, the sense of wrongness is accurate, for this forest is hiding one of Europe’s most dangerous places.
After all, authorities have labeled the 42,000-acre forest, which is found in hills near Verdun-sur-Meuse, “Zone Rouge,” or Red Zone. And Zone Rouge is a restricted area for good reason: it’s harboring deadly secrets.
For instance, just below Zone Rouge’s strange waves of grass lie unexploded bombs, potentially fatal quantities of arsenic and live gas shells. Yet while the full potential of these particular weapons was never realized, those that did go off left behind something even creepier.
Indeed, spread among the munitions are the remains of unfortunate, long-dead soldiers. And their bones are a chilling reminder of one of the fiercest, bloodiest battles of the First World War – one that raged on for ten long months in 1916.
The battle began because the German Fifth Army had planned a preliminary bombardment on the fortified city of Verdun. The aim? To strategically shift troops away from the internally volatile Russia on the Eastern Front and launch a surprise attack on Verdun in the west. So, at 7:15 a.m. on February 21, 1916, 100,000 shells started falling on the city every hour. It was, needless to say, a bloodbath.
Still, a significant weather delay before the attack allowed the French to learn of the plan and send for reinforcements. Moreover, in a desperate effort for survival, the city’s battalions tried to dig even deeper trenches. Regardless, however, almost half of the French troops were destroyed within several hours of the bombardment.
The bombardment continued until the close of day, and the meager number of French survivors bravely rallied to keep the Germans from the city. But the Germans held the advantage, as they were positioned in the forest hills overlooking Verdun and close to the strategically advantageous Fort Douaumont.
On February 24, the Germans took Douaumont and another outlying fort, demoralizing the city’s inhabitants as well as the freshly arrived reinforcements. But retreat was not an option. Instead, French citizens around the country demanded that the forts be recaptured and the city protected.
At that point, however, the battle had turned to one of attrition, with both sides losing men – although they also gained reinforcements. And the stalemate only continued and intensified in July, when the British launched their first offensive attack along the Western Front by the Somme. This itself would become the largest and longest battle of the war.
Elsewhere, Russia went on the offensive again, with the Kaiser deciding to transfer 15 German divisions from Verdun to battle along the Eastern Front. Then, at the end of October 1916, the French were able to retake Douaumont. And in December of that year, the weakened German troops finally surrendered.
All told, the Battle of Verdun caused anywhere between 300,000 and nearly a million deaths, with both sides suffering almost equal losses. The skirmish also turned 40,000 acres of forest into a swampy wasteland of death, poison and unexploded artillery.
In fact, it’s estimated that 65 million shells – some of which were laden with poisonous gases – were launched during the battle. And of this number, as many as 15 percent didn’t explode. French authorities knew how dangerous the shells could be, too. A year after the Great War had finished, then, they purchased the land where the fighting had taken place.
Indeed, the French government seized almost 25,000 acres – including nine war-torn villages. The area was subsequently cordoned off, with the public forbidden from entry. And after that, Zone Rouge was left in the hands of Mother Nature.
Even farming – which had been practiced here in the years leading up to the First World War – was banned. It was hoped, you see, that trees rather than the usual plowed fields and rows of crops would gradually heal the fragile land.
But battle-scarred doesn’t even cut it in terms of describing how the war changed the area. Christina Holstein, an independent U.K.-based historian, explained to National Geographic, “The ground was just completely churned up.” She added, “Any trees were smashed, and men took shelter where they could in shell holes and in holes in the ground.”
And although the fighting had destroyed the forest’s original trees, new ones eventually returned with a vengeance. “The vegetation – trees, grasses, bushes and briars – all came back very quickly,” Holstein continued.
It’s almost as though Mother Nature herself wanted to conceal the disturbing aftermath of the Battle of Verdun. But while she may have succeeded in hiding the worst of it, anyone who steps foot inside Zone Rouge will quickly find disturbing evidence of a truly shocking conflict.
For instance, at first glance it appears as if super-sized eggs sit beneath the trees’ canopy. Yet these are no benign gifts from the environment. Rather, they’re unexploded shells that continue to wreak havoc on anyone who is unfortunate enough to come across them.
And it seems, too, as though the now-thick blanket of grass is concealing more than just hazardous shells. Tests by German researchers have discovered that the soil of Zone Rouge has arsenic levels of roughly 17 percent – a much greater amount than is deemed to be safe.
Reports also claim that fragments of the broken armaments have contaminated local waters with non-biodegradable lead – a substance that has also unfortunately found its way into the wildlife that roam the area. And, disturbingly, this lead – along with the zinc and mercury also discovered in the region – may not completely disappear for a further 10,000 years.
It’s lucky, then, that not many people have set foot inside Zone Rouge since it was declared off-limits almost a century ago. And the brave souls that have crossed the boundary have generally had a specific reason to do so: to clear the fields of live munitions. Tragically, though, one more recent attempt to salvage the land failed horribly.
In 2007 two men were tasked with removing an unexploded mine from Zone Rouge before transporting the weapon to a munitions facility. However, things didn’t go to plan, as both men were killed when the mine blew up.
Sadly, Zone Rouge may well remain eternally dangerous. Indeed, Henry Bélot– one of the men tasked with clearing the old battlefield – has claimed that neutralizing the remaining explosives’ threat is a “near impossibility.” In Donovan Webster’s 1996 book Aftermath: The Remnants of War, Bélot is also quoted as somberly saying, “Out there is a shell with your name on it. Today, if you lift that bomb, you are in the past.”
Bélot’s words were made all the more prescient after he was left badly affected by the toxic contents of an undetonated weapon. Unfortunately, the lethal gas within one of the shells had ultimately seeped out and into his protective mask. But as the outer layers of ammunition can weather and weaken over time, this was a risk that the mine-clearer may have known he was taking.
Plus, as you can likely imagine, these potentially deadly remnants of the Battle of Verdun aren’t just to be found inside the border of the no-go region. Alarmingly, residents in the communities around Zone Rouge stumble across undetonated gas shells and bombs, too – even in the 21st century.
Fall in particular sees a spike in the amount of ammunition churned up from the earth. Why? Well, you see, farmers in the region are busy taking in their crops at that time of year. So much old weaponry has been unearthed during these gathering periods, moreover, that they’ve earned the nickname of “the iron harvest.”
And, regrettably, the iron harvest proves reliably fruitful in both France and Belgium. In 2018, for example, Belgian farmer Dirk Cardeon told The Daily Telegraph that he has exposed hand grenades, fuses and even occasionally a complete shell while in the process of bringing up his potato crops.
Fellow farmer Stijn Butaye also regularly digs up relics from the war, although he has an even more haunting story to tell. According to The Daily Telegraph, Butaye’s father had a particularly terrifying experience while out in the fields. At one point, you see, the man unknowingly steered his tractor over a phosphorous grenade.
Then, within seconds, poisonous gas was billowing up around Butaye’s dad. And if the wind hadn’t been blowing in a particular direction on that day, it’s likely that he would have died. When phosgene is breathed in, you see, it can greatly impair the function of the air sacs in the lungs.
Rather horrifically, the effects of the gas can ultimately stop oxygen reaching the blood and bring about asphyxiation. And even though the symptoms of phosgene poisoning may take two days to show themselves, this doesn’t make the substance any less lethal. In fact, phosgene proved more of a threat than either chlorine or mustard gas in terms of the number of deaths and casualties it caused during WWI.
Yes, only 15 percent or so of gas-related deaths in WWI occurred as a result of shells containing chemicals other than phosgene and its close relation diphosgene. And even though more than a century has passed since these weapons first materialized, they still seem to be demonstrating their deadly potency.
Unearthing a hazardous weapon is a constant risk that farmers near Zone Rouge have to live with, then. In his interview with The Daily Telegraph, Butaye even went so far as to say, “Every weekend, season time, you’ll find a shell or grenade. Now we’re getting used to it.”
Finding old munitions is so common in the region, in fact, that specialist bomb-disposal units often make stop-offs there. These teams then collect the undetonated shells that the farmers have unearthed and discarded at the side of the road – just as we would put out our trash.
But where does the ammunition go after this? Well, the bomb-disposal experts typically then transport the shells to secret detonation areas so that they can be let off in safe and guarded environments. For everyone involved, though, the process may act as a reminder of the enduring trail of destruction left by WWI.
Nevertheless, local communities in France have no choice but to build their lives around the lingering aftermath of the conflict – even if this is a far from easy task. So, just how have people turned living so close to these abandoned, toxic wastelands into a profitable enterprise?
Well, it seems as though certain folks have taken a similar approach to that of the entrepreneurial types who have made hay from the Chernobyl disaster. Yes, they’ve turned the eerie environs into something of a tourist destination. And while visitors still aren’t allowed to traipse beyond the borders of the no-go zone, they do have the opportunity to embark on a Battle of Verdun tour.
During such a trip, you can visit an abandoned village, a number of memorial sites and even some of the safer areas of the battlefields. And as a lot of France’s land was strewn to pieces by the devastation of war, there are similar tours centered around the Battle of the Somme, too.
Near the Zone Rouge, there’s even a restaurant called Le Tommy that is filled with memorabilia from the Great War. And not only does the location showcase a variety of relics that appear to have been dug up after the conflict, but it also boasts a remodeled trench complete with life-sized replica soldiers.
It’s likely for the best, though, that Zone Rouge will almost certainly never be opened up to the public. After all, rendering the area safe would mean chopping down the trees as well as removing around three feet of soil from the entire battlefield. And so there’s every chance that the site of the Battle of Verdun will remain a deadly, unpopulated forest forever.
This also means, however, that places such as Zone Rouge will act as a relentless and unforgiving reminder of the death and destruction caused by WWI. So, while we may not be able to vividly imagine what it was like when these shells landed, we will certainly never be allowed to forget the devastating impact that the conflict has had upon our planet.