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.