Death was all around those at Vimy Ridge in World War I. Men on both sides clung to life in the depths of the trenches, the only defense the ordinary soldier had in the madness called the Western Front. The armies of Germany’s Kaiser and of Britain’s King were locked in a deadly struggle at the French city of Arras. A portion of that battle was at Vimy Ridge. There, nearly 1,000 artillery pieces, supplied with 1.6 million shells, fired night and day. And when the 155 millimeter shell suddenly exploded killing two more at Vimy they were gone in an instant flash of impersonal death. From a shell fired in 1917 and exploding in 1998. The Great War had been over for 81 years.
This is the story of a War and its buried relics that to this day kill and maim. It is the story of death traveling decades in time from shells fired by ghosts of soldiers. Men long since dead, continue to claim their casualties. From their own graves they still randomly and impersonally kill, claiming victims of the Great War, timelessly defending vanished empires and vanquished monarchs. And it is the story of a soldier of that war, his life locked away in a family’s book of secrets and nearly forgotten. In some places World War I has never ended. I found that it is - Still No Man’s Land.
PART I: The Great War
France is no stranger to modern warfare. It was the Western Front of three wars in seventy years. In 1870, the Germans invaded France in the Franco-Prussian war, defeating the French and capturing Paris. In August 1914, the Germans invaded again, initiating combat on the Western Front in World War I, resulting in four long years of total war on the western plains of France. In May of 1940 the Germans came again, and this time conquered France in a matter of weeks. Four years later, the Allied Armies of World War II drove the Germans back across that same frontier, fighting violently all the way into Germany. But, in the destruction of those seventy years, nothing rivals the carnage and chaos of the years 1914-1918.
History has ascribed many labels to World War I: “The Great War”, “The World War”, “War of the Nations”, and “The War to End All Wars”. This was a war where nations engaged in unrestrained industrial warfare for the first time in history. The most heavily damaged and fought over area was the Western Front, the frontier between Germany and France. The total of the trench networks constructed by all armies on the Western Front measured 25,000 miles. Battles of Verdun, Somme, Passchendaele, Marnes, Arras, The Spring Offensive, and The Hundred Day Offensive generated over seven million casualties, a staggering human loss. France would suffer 73.3% casualties in its military ranks over these four years of unprecedented destruction and carnage.
In 1914, the first year of the war, France would lose more soldiers than all American battlefield deaths in the entire 20th century. This includes: World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. France’s overall casualties amounted to 11% of its population.
World War I was a war of many firsts. It was industrialized warfare that saw the introduction of tanks, trucks and cars to the battlefield. Incorporating the mass production of: machine guns, airplanes, submarines, flame throwers, land and sea mines, and large and mobile artillery pieces. Every participating country brought their guns and ammunition to France, including hundreds of variants and calibers. These guns fired shells categorized as: high explosives, anti-personnel, anti-trench, incendiary and of course the notorious first use of poisonous gas. Some shells potentially contained a most insidious device - the time delay fuse. This was invented to make a shell appear as a dud, lulling soldiers into the belief that they were safe. To this day, the internal delay clock of the shell could ignite the bomb in an instant killing the unsuspecting. When found today, these shells must be detonated in place. Even 100 years after the clock was set, time has stood still, presenting a dangerous and deadly paradox, which haunts the landscape to this day.
Estimates range as high as 70% of the war’s casualties were from artillery and mortar shells. Between 1914 and 1918, it is estimated that 750 million to over 1 billion artillery shells were fired on the Western Front. In the area of Belgium, known as Flanders, in one three day period in February 1917, 11 million shells were fired. It is also believed as many as 30% of all shells and munitions fired were duds. Today they are called Unexploded Ordinance, or UXO. It is also believed of the nearly 200-300 million unexploded shells fired in the Great War, the vast majority may still be in place, undisturbed and awaiting their 21st century victims. They are in the old filled in trenches. They are under roads, and in farmers’ fields and orchards.
These 100 year old deadly projectiles may lurk in anyone’s back yard or garden. They lay undisturbed in the forests, streams, rivers and ponds, now resembling tree trunks, branches, or rocks. They are in the way of construction projects, routinely causing delays as they did on the famous Chunnel, the English Channel tunnel linking Britain and France. Some are hiding in the sea, rusting and corroding, waiting for their victims. When the water table in the French area of Alsace was dropped, over one million German hand grenades were revealed. They had been under water since the end of the war. Authorities could only state: “It took a long time to clean them up”.
Many traces of the horrors of this conflict continue to be found well into the twenty-first century. Landscapes still remain barren from heavy metal toxicity. Bomb craters large and small surround ruined villages and towns isolating entire regions closed since war’s end. Manicured cemeteries containing the dead by country stand in the shadows of massive monuments listing the names of those never recovered, blown to bits and swallowed into the now filled trenches and craters. This war has left relics, some buried deep under ground, yielding only with the passing of time and the disruption of the soil. Relics, corroding in the rich soil of France and Belgium, time traveling instruments of sudden death, fired from the guns of ghosts long dead, awaiting their victims of a war which ended nearly a century ago. Today the buried, deadly shells surface as the sinister Iron Harvest.
PART II: Forbidden Ground
Verdun is cited as one of the most violent battles of the Great War. One of its many distinctions is that of having the most dead soldiers and civilians per square meter. On average, 150 shells per square meter fell on Verdun. That is nearly incomprehensible - 150 shells per square meter, or roughly per square yard, an area 3’x 3’. During the ten months of unimaginable cruelty, 60 million shells were fired, resulting in nearly one million casualties. In total, those shells created an enormous amount of missing and presumed dead soldiers who vanished forever without a trace. Today it is estimated that over twelve million artillery shells remain in the soil and woods of Verdun, hiding in two million acres of completely uninhabitable and unusable land. Maps identify this region as Zone Rouge. – the Red Zone.
At Verdun, like most of the battle sites, one will find the large French red warning signs, Terrain Interdit (Forbidden Ground). In this area, nine French towns were completely obliterated and removed from the map. Today one will find signs where these towns once flourished, Village Detruit (Village Destroyed), recognized as towns that, “died for France”. At War’s end these areas were totally barren, without: trees, vegetation, birds or animals. Entire towns, villages, and generational homes were pulverized by endless shelling from both sides leaving only deep brown stinking muck. This wasteland of unspeakable horrors yielded muddy fields of dead decaying soldiers, body parts, barbed wire and destroyed weapons, burned vegetation and charred wildlife. A place so dangerous that the next war, World War II, did its best to stay out of the region of Verdun.
Verdun’s destruction caused, “dead zones” which can be seen 100 miles in space. Land physically and environmentally destroyed by the hand of man. Even the songbirds never returned to Verdun. It is said that saying “Verdun” to a Frenchman, is like saying “Auschwitz” to a Jew.
Today the forest around Verdun is full of old growth trees, planted at war’s end by the Germans as part of the reparations of Versailles. In a rich irony, the roots of these trees have grown around the bombs further heightening the dangers of the buried shells. The forest around Verdun is called The Forbidden Forest and it is estimated that over 12 million unexploded shells reside here. Known as the Iron Harvest, some of shells sit atop the soil, hiding in plain sight, awaiting its 21st century victims. Here also are overwhelming amounts of unburied human remains, pieces of soldiers, comrades known only to God. And it is here in Verdun where the experts who clear away the bombs called Demineurs, or Deminers in English.
PART III: Collectors of the Iron Harvest
The Demineurs are employees of the Departement du Deminage, a department in the Ministry of the Interior of the Government of France. They remain anonymous to the French population at large, rarely speaking to anyone, including their families, of their official duties. Their goal is to live as stress free a life as possible, remaining mentally autonomous. Their job requires steady skill and heightened concentration, as a mistake could kill or maim. Potential employees are invited to join; one cannot apply. The Demineurs can only travel in specially built and marked vehicles. When fully loaded, they can only travel on certain roads and only at night. Their routes are unknown to the public and never known to anyone outside the department. They must avoid main roads, bridges and tunnels, and must remain far from hospitals, schools, and anywhere concentrated groups of people are found. Even when on duty and collecting their deadly cargo, they go only where summoned. Each year they are summoned nearly two million times in France alone. When they go to lunch it is out of uniform for if they arrive in a town in uniform, panic may set in amongst the residents. They live in the shadows, very deadly shadows.
They concentrate on learning about weapons that have not existed for decades. They are, in some cases, world authorities on the weapons and ammunition of the Great War. They have also studied the metal used in these weapons and try to understand and predict the effects of burying that metal in moist soil or under water for nearly a century. They are experts on triggering mechanisms for all the shells of all the armies that were engaged in the war on the Western Front. They must learn to identify what is in a corroded, unmarked, rusted hulk of a shell. They must know about the toxic gases used during the War, all 36 kinds, and all capable of killing and maiming entire towns. They are experts on what was and must apply it to what is - shells fired a century ago by men dead for decades, buried in the soil of France, rotting, corroding, and waiting to be discovered. The knowledge they must gain, the pressures and stresses they must endure, and the potential fates they must accept make these very remarkable men.
Since it began collecting unexploded ordinance in 1946, the Departement du Deminage in France has had 630 of its technicians killed on the job. That is an average of nine deaths per year, averaging out to 126 men killed in the 21st century. As late as December 2007 two French technicians were killed moving a beer keg sized 155-millimeter shell. This was a job they had done countless times before. But this time the shell suddenly and violently exploded. All that was left were the soles of the two men’s shoes welded to the floor by the incredible burst of heat. Two more casualties of The Great War.
France uses a central collection, identification and final destruction center on its northern coast of the English Channel. It is the place where old shells of all types and origins come to die. When the tide recedes near Dunkerque (Dunkirk), it travels many kilometers. There, shells are buried deep into the exposed ocean floor. Then these deadly creations, covered by many meters of clay and further covered by the 40’ of water with the returning tide, are remotely detonated from a safe distance where all personnel are enclosed in a concrete bunker. Incredibly the massive explosion throws the sea water a half mile into the sky. With the use of modern high temperature explosives, the descendants of France’s curse incinerate all the buried shells including all 36 types of poison gas which are vaporized in the extraordinary heat. France destroys about 900 tons of unexploded ordinances per year. Based on current rates of capture and destruction some have estimated it will take hundreds of years to find and destroy the entire unexploded ordinance in France from World War I alone.
Each year, the Iron Harvest takes its toll mostly on the citizens of France and Belgium. In 1995, five lumberjacks working in the Argonne Forrest region were killed instantly when their campfire exploded. It was later determined that they unknowingly had chosen to have their campfire above an unexploded shell buried just out of sight. To this day, the hidden dangers demand that farmers plow their fields in the directions they have been plowed for generations. Although this is agriculturally restrictive, they opt for safety over fertility. The artillery barrages in Ypres in 1917 were loud enough and lasted long enough for the sounds to be heard in London, over 140 miles away. In one year alone near Ypres, thirty six farmers were killed simply plowing their fields. And in Belgium, since war’s end in the area of Ypres, 358 citizens have been killed and more than 500 more maimed clearing away unexploded World War I ordinance. Farm equipment is bigger, faster and digs deeper than ever before only heightening the existing dangers.
Additionally, 23 bomb experts of the Belgian Explosives Ordinance Disposal (DOVO) have been killed on the job handling unexploded shells. In the Ypres salient, one of World War I’s most deadly areas, the British and Germans fired an estimated 300 million shells at each other. As many as one third of those shells failed to detonate.
In Messines, Belgium there is a large and very deep lake. It is no ordinary lake. It was created when the British Army tunneled deep beneath the German encampment on the Messines Ridge. In peaceful times windmills were located on the ridge. When the Germans invaded, they captured the high ground of the ridge and fiercely defended it.
The British tunneled beneath the ridge and at the end of the tunnel they deposited 45 tons of high explosives. At three o’clock on the morning of June 7, 1917, one the world’s most powerful manmade prenuclear age explosions swallowed up the Germans on Messines Ridge, raining down debris killing many more. The result was an estimated 10,000 German casualties. Today this lake is known as The Pool of Peace.
CONCLUSION: Still No Man’s Land
The Great War still claims its casualties nearly 100 years after it officially ended. In France, 16 million acres of prime lands are still considered dangerous. Of that, 2 million acres are totally unusable, with entry forbidden. It is Still No Man’s Land.
Time is no one’s friend as the steel shells are corroding, the firing mechanisms are deteriorating, and the gas is leaking and poisoning the land. Hundreds have been killed and wounded in the last few decades, death from weapons fired nearly a century ago. Recently, an eight year old, Maite Roel, was camping with her friends. They built a fire. One of the children threw what she thought was just another log onto the fire. It was an artillery shell, rusted, corroded and unrecognizable until it exploded. Now Maite is officially a victim of the Great War, “Mutilee dans la Guerre”. Nearly 100 years since the war’s end, Maite receives a pension from the Belgian Government, identifying her as a World War I casualty.
The men who loaded, aimed and fired these guns are long since dead. They are now the ghosts of the Great War, claiming still their victims in the names of long dead Kings and Kaisers. Indeed, the last battle of this war still rages in the countryside, amongst the quiet hills, picturesque forests, rivers, and streams. Death waits in the farmlands, orchards, gardens, construction projects, and even the back yards. The weapons quietly wait for their victims. The soldiers are gone, but their deadly devices still remain, holding on to their claim, that this is, - Still No Man’s Land.
EPILOGUE: “There’s More to that Story”
The steady rain fell all morning, blurring my window view on the train ride from Paris to my destination in Arras. As I stepped into the taxi at the Arras train station, I was chilled from the few moments in the raw cold autumn rain in northern France. I asked the driver to take me to the memorial at Vimy Ridge. He responded in a positive tone as I sat back processing this place, knowing how different it was when he was here. Black and white photos from old history books came to colorful life in the passing landscape. The taxi drove on as the voices of the living and the dead filled my head.
Looking out the taxi window framed in the falling rain I first heard my Grandfather’s voice say, “He was a hero.” His somber tone was cut short when corrected by his son, my Father. “Dad, You know there is more to that story.” The moment silenced, hidden away again like an old treasure stuffed back into a small wooden box.
Like the moving taxi my mind traveled to another place and time and it was Father’s voice I heard. I could hear his lifelong reminiscences of his beloved Grandmother. He was quick with his praise and admiration of her. Granny he called her, the beloved matriarch of his family. The leader of the family, she was strong, loved and feared by all. In my lifetime I could not remember my father mentioning his grandfather. A man an entire family seemed to have forgotten.
The taxi driver spoke french to my traveling companion. For a moment I rejoined the conversation as I noticed he became aware that we were visiting France to pay our respects to our family’s dead at Vimy Ridge. As quickly as I rejoined them, I fell back into my world of spinning memories. I saw again the newspaper from Truro, Nova Scotia nearly 100 years old when I read it. It covered the trial and sensational crimes of M.R. McNutt, my great grandfather. My memories returned to a life hidden and dismissed by his descendants.
The road signs indicated we were nearing the battlefield and monument. My thoughts interrupted and the moments of reverie replaced by the reality of where I was. We arrived at the visitor center, as I wondered is this the place where the truth was to be found. The last piece of a family’s hidden story, a place where judgement would be granted or reserved. My ride had ended - My journey had begun.
Exiting the taxi my walk to the massive monument began. Dominating all things around it, the two columns towered over the fields and woods like something otherworldly. I noticed the small rolling hills, and then realized they were the craters of the bombs that landed here again, and again, and again.
Suddenly I was not cold, and no longer felt the rain, except how it was fogging my now useless glasses. I took them off knowing that I must get closer to the monument to find his name. Approaching it, they are not noticeable, but as I got closer I could slowly see the thousands of names chiseled into the enormous stone base of the memorial. So many names. So many names.
Quietly, with the respect that this place deserves, I whispered to my traveling companion, “Do you see it? I cannot find it.” She stated with reverence, “It is here.” I anxiously demanded, “Where? Where is it, I do not see it.” She pointed and my tear filled eyes followed her hand until I found it - M.R. McNUTT. Slowly I rubbed my fingers across the letters M and then R. I felt the deep grooves in the cold stone as my hand scrolled across his surname – my surname. I pressed the paper against his name. The wet stone made the rubbing difficult and slow. As I rubbed the pencil across his name I once again heard my father’s voice from decades earlier.
In a rare moment my father unlocked the place where family secrets are stored. I remembered him looking at his 72 year old father and uncharacteristically correcting him. In a direct tone, he said of M. R. McNutt, “Dad, you know there is more to that story.”
It was Easter 1972. My Mother’s house smelled of a baking ham, covered in pineapple and cloves. I was sitting beside my Grandfather, the oldest man I knew. I loved the smell of his pipe and the blue circling smoke as it rose above our table. As my father carved the ham, my grandfather remarked that fifty five years ago his father was killed in the Great War. I had never heard that before, so I said, “Grandpa, your father was killed in World War I?” “Yes. I have his medals at home.” he said puffing his old pipe. Finishing in a mournful tone he said, “He was killed at Vimy Ridge in France, on April 28, 1917. He was killed by an artillery shell. He was a hero.”
His blue pipe smoke disappeared above us as the conversation at the table fell silent. My Grandfather a rigid and unemotional man was visibly frozen in his grief. But the moment vanished as my father said very deliberately, “Dad, you know there is more to that story.” A story never before told, a family secret uncovered. As quickly as the box of family secrets had opened it was shut and would remain locked away for nearly forty more years.
The rain was gently falling as I rejoined the present and returned to Vimy Ridge, determined to try to understand this awful place. Walking around the massive white stone monument and the battlefield, I thought of events from long ago. Then I focused on what had happen here nearly 100 years ago. Such suffering and destruction. Chaos and human carnage. Men destroyed physically and mentally, broken men never to be the same. Men and boys sacrificed in battle by a King and a Kaiser who were first cousins and the grand children of Britain’s Queen Victoria. Two men and their governments who issued the death warrants of nearly an entire generation of Europeans.
Surrounded by woods, fields, and the hill - Vimy Ridge, I am immersed in the lingering scars that still remain on the land. I notice those same red signs warning: ENTRANCE FORBIDDEN. I could not go to all the places where the soldiers fought and died - it was still to dangerous. Remarkably, nearly 100 years later the land is still so perilous that sheep must cut the grass and eat the low bushes. A vivid reminder that this is Still No Man’s Land.
The rain had lessened but the clouds hung low as I began my walk up the long hill, up Vimy Ridge. I see the white monument shrouded in the foggy clouds, disappearing in an eerie reminder that before the statues, monuments, and graves this was a battlefield, a terrible place.
Walking slowly I again hear the only voice that remembered him. Images of my Grandfather resurface in my mind’s eye. He would love this place I thought, a fitting resting place for his father and hero.
Hero is not the title granted to M.R. McNutt by most survived him. His grandson, my father, never uttered his name. Yet, he always honored the memory of his Grandmother. With love and pride, he affectionately referred to her as Granny. Born in Canada, she immigrated to the United States in the 1920’s with: her second husband, twenty something son Morton Abner McNutt, his wife, and three of the nine children they would raise just outside Boston. My father would recall her strength and influence as he was growing up during the depression. One story, a family legend he repeated often, was how she survived when a “burglar” broke into her home in Truro, Nova Scotia. We were told that as a poor young “widow” she was attacked and shot three times. The legend ends with Granny forcing the “burglar” away and surviving the attack. She was one of my Dad’s heroes and also the young wife of M.R. McNutt, a forgotten man.
M.R. McNutt was a coal miner in Nova Scotia. He was a notorious fighter with a quick temper and love for liquor. According to the local town paper, he broke into a house and shot two women, one of them three times. His lawyer claimed that the day before he shot the two women, M.R. McNutt was hit in the head by a large rock and sustained a serious head wound. His attacker was the son and brother of the women he shot the next day.
At his trial the local newspaper described him as being disconnected from the court proceedings. The reporter noted, M.R. McNutt seemed to be filled with sadness, and overwhelmed by the fact he had shot his wife three times and his mother in law twice. It was 1905, and he was found guilty and sentenced to a lengthy prison term. M. R. McNutt would never again see his wife or young son, because they emigrated to America.
Ten long years later, he was offered redemption when he volunteered to join the Canadian Army. Great Britain and her Commonwealth nations, of which Canada is one, were at war with Germany. The British Army needed soldiers and especially miners to help dig the trenches and tunnels of the Western Front in France. M.R. McNutt volunteered from his prison cell, and served in the 8th Manitoba Regiment of the Canadian Infantry on the murderous World War I battlefields of France.
We do not know much of his exploits in France. We do know that according to the War Graves Commission of Canada, he is “Remembered with Honour” for his sacrifice to “King and Country”. M.R. McNutt was reported killed on April 28th 1917. He died near Arras, France at Vimy Ridge, killed instantly by an artillery shell. According to my Grandfather, M.R. McNutt was only identified by a surviving piece of his uniform.
Today his name is carved into the massive Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge, thus securing a place of honor in his country’s history and my family’s legacy. I see his redemption in his voluntary participation in the most futile and difficult of man’s endeavors - War.
My travels to Vimy, Arras, the Somme, and Verdun were inspired by my limited knowledge of M.R. McNutt. Somehow traveling to these places, and writing this story has brought life to the lifeless, sound to a voice I can only imagine, sight to a face that I am descended from, and meaning to a life lived with all its frailties and imperfections.
Leaving Vimy I hear the words of a French Soldier as he tried to endure the Great War. Lieutenant Alfred Joubaire, who died at Verdun wrote,
“Humanity is mad! It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre. What scenes of horror and carnage… Hell can not be so terrible! Men here are Mad…”
Joubaire’s words mix with my grandfather’s simple, mournful words spoken long ago and thousands of miles and decades away this place. A man he tried to understand and a life he believed was not lived in vain. It was the hope of my aged grandfather that I and others would know of him, remembering him with words spoken long ago, as an old man who lamented, “He was a hero.”
When I returned from Vimy Ridge, my father now as old as his father was on an Easter Sunday long ago, handed me an old small wooden box. He said plainly, “You should have this.” It was my grandfather’s collection of M.R. McNutt’s World War I medals. The box with the rest of the story - The rarely disturbed and painful truth that M.R. McNutt was a hero and a villain.
Mankind remains a victim of the death, madness, horror, and carnage of the Great War. Relics and fading memories remain in a wasteland appropriately named and remembered by this writer as, “Still No Man’s Land”.
Amelia C. McNutt
Normandy Research Foundation
Edited by R. M. Fassi, M.Ed.
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