The iron harvest is the annual "harvest" of unexploded ordnance, barbed wire, shrapnel, bullets and congruent trench supports collected by Belgian and French farmers after ploughing their fields. The harvest generally applies to the material from World War I, which is still found in large quantities across the former Western Front.
During World War I an estimated one tonne of explosives was fired for every square metre of territory on the Western front. As many as one in every three shells fired did not detonate. In the Ypres Salient, an estimated 300 million projectiles that the British and the Germans forces fired at each other during World War I were duds, and most of them have not been recovered. In 2013, 160 tonnes of munitions, from bullets to 15 inch naval gun shells, were unearthed from the areas around Ypres.
Unexploded weapons - in the form of shells, bullets and grenades - buried themselves on impact or were otherwise quickly swallowed in the mud. As time passes, construction work, field ploughing and natural processes bring the rusting shells to the surface. Most of the iron harvest is found during the spring planting and autumn ploughing as the region of northern France and Flanders are rich agricultural areas. Farmers will collect the munitions and place them along the boundaries of fields or other collection points for authorities.
Despite the condition of the shells, they remain very dangerous. The French Département du Déminage (Department of Mine Clearance) recovers about 900 tons of unexploded munitions every year. Since 1945, approximately 630 French clearers have died handling unexploded munitions. Two died handling munitions outside Vimy, France as recently as 1998. Over 20 members of Belgian Explosive Ordnance Disposal (DOVO) have died disposing of First World War munitions since the unit was formed in 1919. Civilian deaths are also common. In just the area around Ypres, 260 people have been killed and 535 have been injured by unexploded munitions since the end of the First World War. Shells containing poisonous gas remain viable and will corrode and release their gas content. Close to five per cent of the shells fired during the First World War contained poisonous gas and ordnance disposal experts continue to suffer burns from mustard and phosgene gas shells that were split open.
In Belgium, iron harvest discovered by farmers is carefully placed around field edges, or in gaps in telegraph poles, where it is regularly collected by the Belgian army for disposal by controlled explosion at a specialist centre in Poelkapelle. The depot was built after ocean dumping of shells stopped in 1980. Once extracted by the army, the gas chemicals are burned and destroyed at high temperatures at specialized facilities and the explosives detonated.
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- Toronto Globe and Mail, quoted in The Orderley Room 20 April 2001, accessed 27 April 2006
- "Mustard gas blisters and a daily risk of death: Bravery of soldiers still clearing the 'iron harvest' of World War I shells from beneath Flanders' fields". Daily Mail. 10 November 2013. Retrieved 4 January 2014.
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