The Great War demanded a heavy toll on human life in many different ways, but alongside this, there was another damage we seldom consider: the destruction and ruination of the environment.
It was so heavy and disruptive that its effects can still be felt after 100 years.
Ravaged farmlands, charred trees, muddy quagmire are iconic images of the Great War. We see them, yet we often fail to realise what that meant for the environment.
On the Western Front, where the battle was fiercer, trenches ran from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier. Along this line, the activity of millions of soldiers and billions of shells transformed fields and forests within the relatively narrow war zone into a wasteland, a moonscape where nothing lived.
Artillery destroyed the composition of the soil and incinerated forests. Animals were killed by asphyxiating gases just like humans.
Military strategy dictated devastation. Lands were flooded to stop the advancement of enemy armies, entire portions of the country were razed to the ground to take away resources from the enemy. In the heat of battle, artillery units fired several hundred rounds an hour, which often carried chemical inside. Their impact not only disrupted the soil with the explosion but dispersed those chemicals in the ground. The land, deformed by the explosions, trapped the deadly vapours in shell holes and seam trenches. Burn earth, rotting corpses, and craters like cauldrons with a horrid brew of mud, gore and green-yellow mists of stale gas struck the troops as the very image of hell.
This devastation seemed to swiftly vanish when the war was over. Many veterans wrote in their letters and diaries that what used to be their posts were invaded by vegetation only a few years after the war. But more severe damages didn’t go away that swiftly.
Following the 1918 armistice, the areas most involved in the war – primarily northern France and Belgian Flanders – faced an extensive clean-up and restoration effort. It involved filling up the trenches, removing the barbed wire, rebuilding and repairing thousands of farms. UXO and ammunition stockpiles needed to be disposed of, though they were often simply dumped into the sea in designated dumping areas. Shells made out of lead, copper and brass and ammunition containing arsenic were burned in open pits, resulting in heavy soil pollution.
This area of devastation was afterwards divided into different zones, with the ‘Red Zone’ being an area deemed beyond hope of restoration. These Red Areas still stands in France and Belgium, where people don’t go to live because of the high levels of arsenic and chemicals in the environment, resulting in chronic illnesses.
A world devastated by war
The theatre of war has obviously sustained the greatest damage, but the Great War disrupted the environment around the entire world. For example, the demand for timber was huge because it was used to build trenches and barracks. Considerable was also the demand for tin, used for supplies of different kinds (including food) for the soldiers.
To keep armies in action, nations commandeered natural resources all over the biosphere, expanding the war’s environmental influence. The massive shift of natural resources to the war effort changed the land, transformed state infrastructures and reoriented economies, both in Europe and elsewhere. This war economy created environmental devastation in Mexico, China and India, to mention just a few, both because some nations could use their colonies as suppliers and because some countries not involved in the war saw a way to boost their exports. But these actions disrupted those countries’ economies in a way that was only settled years after the end of the war.
The Impact of World War one on the Forests and Soils of Europe by Drew Heiderscheidt (pdf)
National Geographic – How archaeology is unraveling the secrets of WWI trench warfare
International Encyclopedia of the First World War – Destruction of the Ecosystem