FRANCE'S LETHAL LEFTOVERS - Concluded from 23 November:
Not surprisingly, mines were foremost on the agenda of those who first took on the daunting task of cleaning up. Following the Normandy landings, the advancing Allies cleared the first mines; then, in August 1944, a company of young volunteers was formed to fight the faceless enemy. Trained and equipped by the British, and operating until demobilised in May, 1945, these were the first French démineurs, or mine disposal personnel. Earlier that same year the Direction du Déminage took charge of the raising and destruction of mines in and around Paris. With the major minefields deemed under control two years later the destruction of other munitions became practicable, many dating from the First World War and some even from the War of 1870-71.
Between 1945 and 1985 the démineurs neutralised 650,000 aircraft bombs, and 13.3 million mines, and 23 million shells or other explosives.
The cost in lives lost in the line of duty was high. Of the 3,200 French démineurs operational between 1945-47, 592 died and 800 were gravely wounded. In addition, at least 2,500 German prisoners of war pressed into the same service were killed. To date, more than 630 French démineurs have been killed.
For years these men have hauled away munitions by night, on roads as out of the way as possible, without causing any civilian casualties The munitions are stockpiled in guarded and cordoned off areas. Up until 1994, when the criticism of ecologists stopped the practice, some were disposed of by exploding them under water in the Somme. In 1996 the government decided to build a special plant to deal with munitions both conventional and chemical at Mailly-le-Camp, near Troyes. Three different methods were proposed: crushing, burning or dissolving in nitric acid -- all to be carried out by machinery. The plant is now ready and will by operational for at least thirty years.
The démineurs, heros of 'l'après-guerre,' have tended to be 'les oubliés,' the forgotten. In the interest of public confidence they have always gone about their work unobtrusively, worn no distinguishing uniform, and drawn scant attention from the public and media. It is remarked by one of their number, Thiérry Vareilles, author of Encyclopédie du Terrorisme International, that there exists for these men a strange fascination for each of the munitions with which they must deal. Their foe, a diabolical device, the product of ingenuity and deadly purpose, is to be conquered by knowledge, intelligence, total self-control. To triumph over a mine or shell is above all to triumph over oneself, to tame one's inborn fear. Their messages to one another tend to be signed with the motto 'Corpos Sui' -- master of oneself -- followed by their personal number. Today the several hundred démineurs in France are a closely knit band, a dedicated family. When one of them is killed the death is felt by all.
In the lurid light of past and recent history it comes as a cheering surprise to discover that of the tens of thousands of unsuspecting tourists from around the world who have chosen France for their holidays every year not one has suffered the fate shared by some of these démoneurs with certain unfortunate farmers and the eleven-year old boy from Dunkerque.
[Refs.: Voldman, Danièle: Le Déminage de la France Après 1945; Reig, Jean: Les Oubliés, Paris, n.d.]