Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The smell of war

I am lucky to live within sight of the largest green space in urban Toronto, the lush expanse of trees, trails, streams and rolling hills known as High Park. For years, a morning routine has been to walk the park, getting some exercise while enjoying the changing moods of the place. Different seasons trigger different memories, and this morning was no different. Tramping through a trail beneath a cover of blossoming hard wood trees, the earth wet from an overnight shower, I came upon a small clearing of green grass. It was one of those areas families will soon use for picnics, and the groundskeepers had just finished cutting the grass when I smelled it again: the smell of war.

I hadn’t suffered any sort of traumatic flashback to some personal experience in a battle, nor was I even thinking about a conflict that had recently occurred. But I was reminded of war and death, and the smell most definitely stopped me dead in my tracks. For there, in a peaceful park in Canada’s largest city, the smell of the First World War came back to me. Our sense of smell is supposed to be leave the strongest impression, and the freshly cut grass certainly brought a lot back to me this morning.

Bois des Fosses, northeast of Verdun, France

A few years ago, I spent some time in northeastern France with members of the government’s Département du Déminage. These Interior Ministry personnel are tasked with the ongoing clearance of France’s battlefields from two world wars, hauling unexploded shells, grenades, mortars and other ordnance from the very soil where millions of men fought.

On an early summer morning, I followed a six-member team into the forests near the village of Bezonvaux, just north of Verdun. The village itself was destroyed during the Great War and never rebuilt. We passed it without even slowing down, the unit’s trucks veering off the paved road onto a small dirt track that snaked its way from Bezonvaux into the Bois des Fosses. The trucks stopped at some pre-determined point and the men quickly split into three teams and headed off into the woods, with yours truly tagging along. I had no idea what the demineurs were searching for, but as I followed them I could clearly see signs of the horrific 1916 Battle of Verdun everywhere: the ground was pitted and scarred from all the artillery shells that had exploded, small hillocks on all sides. There was no such thing as old growth forest here, for there had been no forest left after the initial artillery barrages between the French and Germans over ninety years ago. And though the trees had eventually begun to grow again – many years after the Armistice of 1918 – the Bois des Fosses harboured a far deadlier harvest for the demineurs.

Deminuers with unexploded German shell

It didn’t take long for the men to begin their work. Quite simply, their job entails working their way through selected portions of the forest battlefield and picking up the various unexploded munitions that the earth heaves up from time to time. In some places, I was told, over two tonnes of munitions fell on a square metre of soil and the French government has predicted it will take something like 800 years to clear the entire country. Yes, 800 years. And, given the way governments tend to be conservative with many of their statistics, one wonders if the real figure isn’t much higher. For the demineurs, though, there is a cost to all this clearance, as dozens have been killed over the years protecting France from her past.

As the men continued to haul away ordnance, the sky began to resound with the rolling thunder of an impending storm. It made me think of what the soldiers who had fought and died here must have heard, when the guns opened up and the German 77mm and French 75mm field artillery began hurling their deadly charges skyward.

The variety of ordnance and equipment employed during the battle for Verdun was atypical of the entire First World War: there were shrapnel shells, high explosive shells, gas shells, howitzers, siege guns, mortars, even immense railroad guns. And since not everything that was fired exploded on impact – duds, so to speak – there is an awful lot for the demineurs to reap.

High explosive shell

After a couple of hours, the impending thunderstorm finally exploded from above and the team’s supervisor put a halt to the day’s work. The various munitions collected were placed in the waiting trucks – into sandboxes, so they shells wouldn’t roll around as we returned to their base. And back at the old German fortress they called home, near the ancient city of Metz, the shells from the War To End All Wars were laid to rest in secure vaults. In a few weeks’ time, the shells would be trucked to a military base and piled into heaps, wired up with explosive charges and detonated, finally putting an end to their long and dangerous lives.

Ah, but the smell I was reminded of? Well, after the teams had unloaded the ordnance, one of them took me aside to show me a special shell they’d found. It wasn’t much larger than a section of a baseball bat, a brown, rusting relic that he held very gingerly in his gloved hands. He gently rocked it from side to side and told me to listen to the shell, to put my ear close to it. As he moved it from side to side, I could hear the faint sound of a liquid sloshing within it. This, he told me, was gas. By the ring on its nosecone, it was a phosgene shell, a German chemical weapon from the First World War.

Phosgene gas shell

The demineur told me to follow him into the vault as he placed it upon a pile of other chemical shells, and then pointed to a collection of white, plastic jerry cans in one corner. These contained liquid phosegene that had been removed from shells too rusty to trust. The demineurs drilled a hole in the decrepit shells, emptied the contents and stored them here until they could figure out to properly dispose of the chemicals.

He took one of the containers, and unscrewed the cap. “Here, have a smell,” he said, “But not too close, okay?” And so I took a whiff of the weapon that had inspired so much fear and caused so many injuries and deaths, taking in the scent of 1916.

That scent remains with me to this day, for it smelled like a fresh cut lawn.

Monday, May 07, 2007

U.S. release of my last book

For those of you living in the United States, I’d like to announce that you can now purchase my book “Ocean Titans: Journeys in Search of the Soul of a Ship”. Lyons Press released the book last Tuesday, May 1, and it is available through various online sellers as well as select stores. Check you favorite sources for availability.

“Ocean Titans” is a chronicle of two and a half years of journeys around the world to meet those who design, own, build, captain, crew and scrap ocean-going vessels, It is a tale of the birth, life and death of modern ships – and the individuals whose lives revolve around these leviathans. I ventured to meet designers in the Bahamas, shipowners in Monaco, shipwrights in Korea and shipbreakers in India. I traveled aboard a container ship across the North Atlantic in severe gales, sailed with the crew of a bulk carrier tramping up and down the eastern seaboard of America and spent hours in the engine room of a tanker in the Pacific. From masters to deckhands to engineers to cooks, I sought to find out what those who make their livelihoods from the sea really think about their transient homes, asking them if they really think a ship can have a soul.

I invite you to check it out if you're so inclined. Meanwhile, I have begun work on my second book, a look at modern-day piracy and terrorism on the high seas that will be released in both the U.S. and Canada in 2008. More on that as things develop.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Washing up on a buccaneer island

Three hundred years ago, the Ile de la Tortue (called Tortuga by the English) would have been a place to avoid if you were a seafarer. This little island off the north coast of Haiti was known as a base for buccaneers who preyed on shipping passing through the West Indies. By all account, the mostly French buccaneers were a wild band with a ruthless streak; a sailor would have done whatever he could to avoid encountering them. But this past Saturday (April 28), Tortuga was exactly where a shipwrecked captain wanted to be.

According to the US Coast Guard, Captain Ramon Pichardo washed up on a beach on Tortuga after spending four days adrift in the Caribbean. He’d been clinging to a wooden box, without food or water, when he spotted the island as dawn broke and decided to swim for shore. Though he was suffering from mild exposure, Capt. Pichardo was able to find a telephone and contact the authorities, who continue to hunt for survivors. So far, 19 people have been rescued; another 20 remain missing.

Tourists who have visited Puerto Plata may be familiar with the destination of the fishing boat: the Silver Bank, about 100 km north of the Dominican Republic resort town. Fishing and whale watching are popular on the bank, and Capt. Pichardo’s passengers were no exception. His vessel, the 52-foot Abra Cadabra set out from Puerto Plata on Monday, April 23 around 5:00pm, with 39 passengers and crew. But sometime after midnight, sea conditions worsened and the vessel capsized, throwing passengers and crew into the waters. They were over 30 kilometers from shore.

The 38 year-old Pichardo told rescuers that he and six other survivors managed to use a wooden box as a makeshift raft. They drifted west with the current, covering 120 kilometers in four days. Pichardo does not mention if they encountered sharks, but he must have remembered events like the infamous 1987 Death’s Head Beach incident. At that time, dozens of Dominicans, mostly women, were trying to make it to Puerto Rico in the hope of finding work. Smugglers agreed to take them in a fishing boat about the same size as the Abra Cadabra and it, too, capsized. The survivors were soon set upon by dozens of sharks who, according to witnesses, turned the waters red off what is really called Death’s Head Beach.

Currently, vessels and aircraft from the United States, the Dominican Republic and Haiti are running search patrols along the north coast of Hispaniola.

USCG map showing search area off north coast of Haiti