War Is Hell…On the Environment

Published: 14 February 2023

By Zita Ballinger Fletcher
via the HISTORYNET.com web site

Wooded area near Ypres in Belgium

This scene from a wooded area near Ypres in Belgium, photographed in 2013, shows lingering damage left in the environment from World War I, such as shell holes and trenches. Natural environments remain scarred long after wars end. (Tom Stoddart/Getty Images)

These WWI Poisons Continue to Lurk In Shells Beneath the Soil, To Leak and To Spread. Their Effects Are Still Deadly.

Warfare’s impact on nature and the environment is not often discussed in military history circles, even in this age of increased environmental awareness. Sadly, it’s a topic that will remain painfully relevant to humanity not only from the after-effects of wars long past, but from war that continues raging in the world even today.

It can be easy to overlook the toll of war on nature because nature doesn’t have its own voice—at least not one that can be heard easily by humans unless we go out of our way to listen. Popular movies and TV shows may give us distressing but relatively simplistic impressions of destruction caused by battles and war. Historic photos and archival films present contemporary visuals, but these don’t show us the full picture. War has a much more drastic impact on ecosystems than we can imagine, continuing to cause harm even centuries after the din of battle falls silent across former frontlines.

France, for example, is still coping with poisons left in local environments from World War I. Areas near former battlefields have absorbed heavy metals, chemicals and even arsenic. In some places, toxins in the soil prevent anything growing from it. In other areas where trees and animals have returned, toxins remain present in flora, fauna and ground water.

In 2012, the French government prohibited citizens in more than 500 municipalities from drinking locally sourced water due to contamination from perchlorate, which derives from World War I ammunition. A “red zone” of more than 42,000 acres where it is impossible for humans to live exists today in France due to vast amounts of unexploded ordnance—including deadly gas shells—and chemical pollution.

Chemicals used during the war included phosgene, sulfur mustard to cause blistering, and diphenylchlorarsine—the latter a “vomiting agent” used by the Germans in September 1917 in combination with lethal gases to cause Allied soldiers to become sick, remove their gas masks, and be killed by toxic fumes.

The French continue to extract about 900 tons of unexploded ordnance from the soil of their country per year. They have a long road ahead in terms of bringing healing to the land. Experts say it will take literally several centuries before those areas are clean again.

Read the entire article on the HISTORYNET.com web site here:

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