That Unending War

Unexploded shells on display at Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917.

I am reading a book about the First World War that brought some memories of a trip to Belgium in 2014 and this post from September of that year.

A century later, it haunts them still.

The last Canadian veteran of the First World War died in 2010, and I would imagine that is pretty much the case in most countries. The generation that fought and survived the bloody battles in France and Belgium from 1914-18 has now passed into the history books. But the death toll from the war that claimed 11 million lives is not yet final.

The war ended with the Armistice of November 11, 1918, but the number of dead continues to rise, albeit slowly. No longer do 50,000 or 100,000 perish in a single day, but people still die in the aftermath of those century-old battles.

Bomb fragments and unexploded First World War shells sit in a farmer’s shed waiting for pickup.

The tour guide who brought us to Flanders Fields said that just a few weeks before someone had been killed when they had picked up a century-old shell, unexploded and still deadly. In the four years of war the two sides hurled more than a billion shells at each other, many of which, for various reasons, failed to explode.

Every year since, Belgian farmers have turned up unexploded shells as they plough their fields in the Spring. The shells are left by the roadside for bomb disposal teams, though sometimes they are instead taken by souvenir hunters, occasionally with tragic results.

Given that, I wondered how safe it was for the farmers. We were told the shells scavenged on the Western front annually add up to 1,500 tonnes of metal, a number I haven’t checked, but I suppose it is possible.

It is not just in Belgium that the hazard remains. In 2009 I visited the Vimy Ridge Memorial in France and observed the marker place in remembrance of British Lieutenant-Colonel Mike Watkins, a bomb disposal expert who had disarmed three tonnes of ordnance at the Vimy site before being killed there in a collapsing tunnel on August 11, 1998. Even the experts are at risk.

Technology has changed the way we do war and the way we view war. The slaughter of 1914-18 was made possible by technological changes. Armies could kill larger numbers with greater efficiency than ever before. When you review the casualty lists those numbers are mind-numbing.

I believe that as a result of those losses, Western militaries began looking for ways to kill that would result in fewer casualties, at least for their own troops. In the Second World War opposing armies didn’t slog it out in the trenches. American estimates of casualties for a projected invasion of Japan played a part in the decision to use nuclear weapons in August 1945. With casualties predicted in the millions, dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki could be considered by some to be the lesser of two evils.

Military technology has continued its “improvement” to the point where now an advanced military force can strike with little to no risk to itself. A controller sitting in an office can pilot a drone strike from thousands of kilometres away.

To me this raises many so far unanswered moral questions as to the nature of military engagement. The suggestion has been raised that the West values human life so much it does not wish to put its military at risk in combat. Is it possible though that such a remote attack method reduces those being targeted to just creatures in video games, something less than human?

The soldiers manning the artillery batteries of the First World War were targeting a specific enemy, who was firing back. Their technology had unintended consequences, and they continue to kill long after the war has ended and those waging it have been laid to rest.

What are the unintended consequences of today’s newer military technology?


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