There’s an area of France known as the Zone Rouge – the Red Zone. This area is demarked as dangerous because of the millions of munitions, gas canisters, and other weapons of WW1 still remain. It is dangerous to a degree that instead of trying to clean it up, the French government decided it was less expensive to just move every village and every farmer out of the area due to the extreme danger. There are memorial markers for the Villages Detruites (the Destroyed Villages), but 1200 square kilometers and 100 years later, the danger still exists. I was looking at a map of the Zone Rouge, and our trip to Vimy by way of Lille and Arras took us right through there. It would have been impossible for us to fulfill the itinerary without crossing directly through the Red Zone several times. We didn’t, of course, visit Zone Rouge locations – they are illegal to visit. But I stood on the edge of farmers’ fields that I knew still churned up mementos of war with every furrow plowed and harvest taken.
All trail maps, wherever you go, advise you not to leave the trail. Sometimes, like on the trails I wandered as a child, it’s because of fragile ecosystems of plants. In France, it’s not because they’re concerned about the local flora. They’re concerned that you won’t leave your walk in the woods unharmed. By some accounts, not a year has gone by since the First World War started that a farmer in the periphery of the Zone Rouge hasn’t driven a tractor over an unexploded shell. The damage of the war continues to accumulate victims. Some battlefield sites, including the path on the approach to the Vimy Ridge monument, had electric fence set up to keep people off the rolling lawns and meadows because it was not cleared, nor will it be in my lifetime.
You’d think that was the worst of it, but no. The poison gas that rolled through starting at St. Julien and throughout the region still lingers in soil that cannot grow crops. Animals don’t know that, though, so the wildlife that forage are also poisoned. Hunters don’t hunt the wild boar because the levels of lead and mercury are increasingly accumulating in the meat. The amount of arsenic in the groundwater exceeds safe levels thousands-fold.The chemical history in the area isn’t leaching into the ground, it’s surfacing from the ground. When the cleanup of chemical weapons means the exploding of decaying gas shells, it means there’s more contamination now than there was ever before.
When we were driving through the French and Belgian countryside, I saw a bombed out church up on the crest of a rolling hill. They hadn’t tried to rebuild, as they had in so many other places. They just abandoned the church to time.
This year, may the damage done to places like Les Villages Detruites, the Zone Rouge, and the church on the hill serve as reminders that sometimes, the cost of war really, really is ruin from which there is no return.