FRANCE'S LETHAL LEFTOVERS -- Continued from Nov. 20:
Though tourist offices are understandably reticent on the subject, the otherwise richly rewarding and exceptionally beautiful land of France holds deadly reminders of a sanguinary past. All too often the inhabitants of towns and villages in various parts of the country are obliged to leave their homes while an unexploded shell or bomb is rendered harmless. In February, 2003, 6,OOO residents of Rennes were evacuated and an area of 540 metres was cleared following the discovery by workers preparing the foundation for an apartment building of a 250 kilogram bomb dating from a British bombardment of 1944. In April of the same year 9,000 inhabitants of Lens, about a quarter of the population, left the city centre for six hours in order for a 250 kilogram bomb, again unearthed on a construction site, to be dealt with. A month later it was the turn of residents of Etampes; a Second World War bomb dating from a bombrdment of 10 June, 1944 -- a bombardment which cost close to a thousand German victims in the garison there and 125 French civilians -- was discovered by a worker on a site on the Avenue de la Libération, beside the Buffolo Grill restaurant. That December saw 1,200 inhabitants of Lille evacuated for the sake of a 250 kilogram bomb also from the Second World War; sirens sounded, loud speakers blared, some 500 police officers were deployed to bar access to the bomb zone, shops closed, and the rail timetables of the Eurostar, Thalys and TGV were disrupted. A year later, in May, 2004, at Fresnoy-Folny, a 250 kilogram bomb was found in the city dump -- not the first of its kind there, the dump having been the site of a launch pad for VI rockets and frequently targeted by the Allies. In October, 2004, a similar discovery at Brest in Brittany necessitated the evacuation of 2,000 persons. It is estimated that 30,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped on that city during the Second World War.
At war's end France was written off by certain experts as a country devastated, made permanently hazardous in the presence of millions of unexpleded bombs and shells.
Official figures for unexploded munitions of war vary, but a Senate report of 2001 estimates that a quarter of a billion shells, conventional and chemical, fired during the First World War and around 17 million fired during the Second World War failed to explode during these conflicts. In Aftermath: The Remnants of War (Pantheon, 1996), Donovan Webster puts the number of unexploded shells and bombs at 12 million in Verdun alone. Authorites once claimed it could take three to seven centuries to recover all the shells and bombs from the battlefields of the Somme, the Oise, Champagne-Ardenne, the Marne, and the Nord-Pas-de-Calais. At least twenty sites are listed by the Sécurité Civile as the most dangerous zones. And the bombs and shells from the two major wars make up only part of the story. According to the official Bilans Finançiers et Pertes Françaises, some 15 million mines were buried in 370,000 hectares of land and hundreds of thousands of mines sunk in France's coastal waters.
(To be continued)