Two workers die as dormant first World War shell explodes in Ypres

Millions of unexploded shells still litter the battlefields of Europe

Every spring farmers in the Ypres salient dig up thousands of unexploded shells and leave them by the side of the road for the Belgian army to collect. These German shells have been found near the old British trenches five kilometres south-east of Ypres.  Photograph: Ronan McGreevy

Every spring farmers in the Ypres salient dig up thousands of unexploded shells and leave them by the side of the road for the Belgian army to collect. These German shells have been found near the old British trenches five kilometres south-east of Ypres. Photograph: Ronan McGreevy

Fri, Mar 21, 2014, 01:00


A hundred years after the start of the

first World War, the ground where bloody battles were fought continues to yield up deadly secrets.

Two workmen were killed when an unexploded shell blew up in the centre of Ypres, in southeastern Belgium, on Tuesday and two others were injured. One is still in intensive care and will be questioned when he gets out of hospital.

The device, an unexploded German shell, was set off as workmen at a building site in Ypres were digging around a disused factory.


First World War
The danger of unexploded ordinance remains acute despite the years that have passed since the end of the first World War.

By some estimates, there are 20 million unexploded bombs in the Ypres salient, an area of Flanders measuring just 40sq km, which was the site of four years of fighting in the first World War.

The problem is so extensive that the Belgian authorities long ago gave up any hope of alleviating it. Every year, 100 tonnes of wartime debris including unexploded shells are found beneath the soil.

It is commonplace to see shells being laid on the side of the road to be collected by the Belgian army’s bomb disposal squad. An area around the town of Passchendaele, which was the focus of the third battle of Ypres, has been sealed off for the last month following the discovery of hundreds of canisters of mustard gas left behind by the Germans.

Spring is the busiest time for what has become known as the “iron harvest”, where farmers plough the ground and bring wartime debris to the surface.

Ypres police commissioner George Acke said fatalities such as occurred on Tuesday are rare nowadays and there is no danger to visitors. “The people who live here are used to it. Those bombs will not explode unless they are manipulated.”


Centenary ceremonies
Ypres will be the site of some of the forthcoming commemorations for the centenary of the Great War. A summit of EU leaders is due to be held in the city on June 26th.

The centenary of the start of the first battle of Ypres on October 17th will be marked by a lighting-up of the frontline and a projection of the names of all those who fell in the area on the walls of various buildings.

On October 28th, the nations whose soldiers were involved in the fighting, including Ireland, are invited to the Belgian national remembrance. The famous Christmas truce of 1914 will be recalled at Messines.