The above photo isn’t very exciting, is it? I took it only a few minutes ago, because the subject matter has been weighing on my mind of late. It is the road bank next to our fence, but it could be just about anywhere on our property. At first glance it looks simply like a rubbish tip–until one considers that in 1944, this area was a battlefield. I live in Basse Normandie, an hour south of the D-Day landing beaches. Nearly every inch of Normandie was contested by both the Germans and the Allies in the summer of ’44. Thousands of civilians died; tens of thousands of soldiers. When planting trees or flowers, when digging the vegetable patch, etc, it’s easy to find the detritus of war, nearly 78 years after the fact. The above dishes and pottery are harmless enough, but this time of the year, when the farmers are plowing, up comes the unexploded ordnance. In our area, it’s from the Second World War; further north, it’s from both world wars (see photo below).
Sadly, unexploded ammunition is not that hard to find. I went for a ramble with two friends north of here and when we stopped to consult a map, I noticed something lying at our feet: a 25lb shell. We took our map to a safer location. The farmers stack the upturned shells at roadsides and call for the French sappers to come and take them away for disposal. When I was working in Lille, about 20 years ago, two sappers were killed by a WW1 gas shell that exploded in the arms of the man carrying it to their lorry. He died instantly, and his companion the next day from gas inhalation. So the dirty work of war carries on, years after the shells were fired in anger. An astounding 2000 tons of unexploded ordnance is plowed up every year in northern France. Let that fact sink in.
Then there is the human cost of war, which is still in evidence in my village. My next-door-neighbour (who was born in the room where I am writing this) was ousted from the family home, along with his mother, by Germans in WW2. His father had been deported to a prisoner-of-war camp, probably for forced labour. He was seven at the time, but he clearly remembers the depridations of their occupiers, who purloined the best farm animals, their food stores, etc, leaving the native inhabitants to live off the land as best they could. The German officers lived in what is now our house; and what is now our back pasture held a barracks, kitchen and a barn. Only the barn has survived, but again, the foundations and rubble remain from the battle that swept through here. (Don’t ever walk barefoot in this region!) There are many other people here whose childhood and memories remain scarred by war.
Now turn your thoughts to Ukraine. Yes, we all want the war to end and for the Russians to withdraw…well, those of us who think beyond the current cost of fuel and know that the images are not fake. Yet the cessation of active fighting doesn’t mean the effects of the war are over. Lost loved ones, lost homes, landmines, unexploded ordnance, PTSD and more are the hidden half-life of war. Emotional and psychological scars don’t disappear when the shooting stops. In fact, that’s when they begin to show themselves. And if French sappers can be killed removing death’s hardware from a century ago…well, need I say more?