The poisonous legacy of the First World War—which officially ended on November 11, 1918—continues to be felt on the French-Belgian border to this very day, where a 38 square mile (100 square kilometer) stretch of land is still officially an uninhabitable no-man’s-land, to which human access is legally barred.
The cordoned-off area, little known outside of the local region, is inside an area officially known as the Zone Rouge, (the “red zone”). This Zone Rouge is located in a long strip running from the cities of Lille to just past Nancy, and marks some of the worst areas of destruction during the 1914–18 war.
After the war, the Zone Rouge was subjected to a “clean-up” which consisted of destroying the unexploded shells with explosives in the open air. In one area, however, just outside the city of Verdun, some 200,000 unexploded munitions were simply buried.
It is this area, now known as the Place-à-Gaz, or the “place of gas,” which was identified in 2004 by researchers from the Gutenberg University of Mainz and the French National Forestry Office as being still highly toxic.
A chemical analysis of the area found dangerous levels of up to 17 percent arsenic in the soil, tens of thousand times higher than levels found within the rest of the Zone Rouge.
After more intensive investigations and discussions with local authorities, the French government finally formally prohibited all human access to the area in 2012—a real, still-existing no-man’s-land, dating from that terrible war.
“Military Property, do not enter, danger of death”
“Here stood the church.”
“Douaumont, Destroyed Village”
The North and Pas-de-Calais regions of France also suffer from other legacies of the war. In 2012, the drinking water of more than 500 municipalities in those regions was declared unfit for human consumption due to abnormally high levels of ammonium perchlorate, and to this day (2015) over 400 of the municipalities still have usage restrictions on local water.
According to an article in Le Monde, health officials in the region “remain vague about the origins of pollution, but the mapping of the affected sites corresponds to that of the hardest fighting [in World War I]. For the mayors concerned, there is no doubt about the causes…”
French photographer Olivier Saint Hilaire has captured every facet of this forbidden French no-man’s-land. Find his website and more photographs featured in this article here.
* The History of Gas Warfare in World War I.
It was the Germans who first used chemical weapons in the war, starting with what turned out to be relatively ineffectual chlorine gas projectors (which released the gas downwind, rather than being fired in shells, a delivery method specifically outlawed by the Geneva Convention).
Poison gas attack using cylinders.
The British and French replied with their own chlorine gas attacks, but they also soon realized that the effects of that gas blowing in the wind inflicted minor causalities, could be easily avoided, and, worst of all, could blow back onto their troop lines.
As a result, both sides started using shells to deliver the gas in 1915. It has never been finally determined who first broke the Geneva Convention by using shells, but as the German army is known to have first developed the “gas shell,” it is likely to have been them.
The first gas shell fired in the war contained chloromethyl chloroformate, a tearing agent which causes temporary blindness, and was used on the Western Front in 1915 by the German, French, and British armies. With the Geneva Convention having been broken, both sides immediately started research into delivering more deadly chemicals by shelling.
The French were the first to achieve a breakthrough with the development of the gas phosgene. This was, unlike chlorine, an odorless gas first used by the French army against the Germans in 1915. The Germans quickly started using phosgene as well, as did the British. Phosgene is less well-known than the more infamous mustard gas, developed later, despite it being responsible for more than 85 percent of the 100,000 deaths caused by chemical weapons during the war.
Sulphur mustard, commonly called “Mustard Gas,” was first developed in Germany in 1916, and deployed for the first time in July 1917 prior to the Third Battle of Ypres. It was, as described above, less lethal than phosgene, but for some reason seized the popular imagination and has become “the” gas of the First World War.
The end of the war left hundreds of thousands of tons of these evil weapons either in storage or lying around unexploded on the battlefields (the defect rate on shells during the war was of the order of 15 percent).
British 55th Division gas casualties 10 April 1918.