The remains of the young men who fought valiantly for their countries were hidden in what once had been a peaceful idyll.
Then there were the chemical-packed weapons which exploded across the once green fields, lying on the ground. It is thought as many as 65 million shells may have been fired over the course of the battle, many of these filled with poisons.
The French immediately took the danger seriously: a year after the war’s end, it bought 10,000 hectares of battleground, consigning the villages to history and allowing nature to take back the blighted land. Officially, it was a Zone Rouge – an area in a crescent shape around Verdun, considered too dangerous to allow people to return in the immediate aftermath of the war.
Those who did venture onto the battlefield risked stepping on a shell meant to explode generations before. According toLe Monde, some 15 per cent of the shells shot during World War One failed to explode, and they are still deadly – the sound of the poison liquids inside can still be heard.
The most recent fatalities came in 2007, when a live mine blew up as two workers tried to carry it to the munitions plant, where it would have been defused. Attempts to clear the area of its dangerous bounty seemed doomed to failure.
Clearing the land of the detritus of the war in the worst affected areas is a ‘near impossibility’, Henri Belot, who was responsible for ‘de-mining’ the area, said a number of years ago. Indeed, the entire forest would have to be destroyed, and at least a meter of soil dug away to find unaffected ground.