Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Reclaiming the Salient: Resurrecting the Great War Battlegrounds of Flanders Fields

By Roger Steward
Helion and Company, 2023
David F. Beer, Reviewer

Part of the Salient's "Iron Harvest"

“You did it, you clean it up!” Most of us heard this as children when we spilled something, were messy with crayons, or just a bit careless with the cornflakes. But there is nothing childish about the inconceivably hideous cleaning up of bombs and bodies that Roger Steward describes graphically in Reclaiming the Salient. Yes, we did it and we had to clean it up, and we haven’t finished the job yet.

This book is divided almost evenly between intensive efforts to clean up Flanders Fields of "dud" ammunition, and to recover human remains. Part 1, "The Iron Harvest," covers in seven chapters the massive human labor, both British and Belgian, involved in clearing still-lethal shells—a task, as any of us who have toured the area knows, goes on to this day. An almost mind-boggling number of both explosive and gas artillery shells and mines lay untouched in the area at the end of the war.

The author takes us from 1918 to the present day with unexploded materials in the Salient. We get details of the people involved in the clean-up, both military and civilian, the dangers constantly involved, and the evolution of government entities which still oversee the job. 

Fortunately, there is a two-page list of abbreviations at the start of the book which we can refer to when we meet them in the text, such as ASD (Army Salvage Department), DOVO (Service for Clearance and Disposal of Explosive Ordnance [Belgium]), and NBC (Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical). Some refer to the technology involved in munitions destruction laboratories, such as PINS (Portable Isotopic Neutron Spectroscopy). It is also interesting to learn that…

DOVO has built an incredible physical library of munitions at the base of Poelkapelle. Started in the 1990s, the library contains at least one complete example of every type of ammunition recovered by DODO and serves as an important tool of reference. The collection totals over 440 different types of munitions, ranging from hand grenades to artillery shells, the largest being a 15-inch-calibre British high-explosive shell and a German 38cm-calibre shell (p. 94).

We can see the library via two black and white photographs. Other photos show workmen in the mire, random piles of shells, a man’s hand injured by a leaking mustard gas shell, and the detailed process of shell destruction in the SDC (Static Demolition Chamber). The author also relates several anecdotes of ignorant or reckless tourists collecting or meddling with potentially live shells. (It still happens!)

German Fatalities from the Salient Prepared for Burial

Part II of Reclaiming the Salient, "Recovering the Fallen," is even more riveting—and very sobering. It’s to a great extent a paean to the men and organizations involved in searching an often "noxious quagmire" to find tens of thousands of bodies in the decades after the war. Obviously these bodies were severely deteriorated, having lain in mud for ages or dug up from shallow graves hastily prepared by comrades. The author deals with this subject in a level-handed manner, however, and is never morbid although some photos are quite graphic.

No one was prepared for the task of recovering the dead when the war ended. Manpower had to be hastily organized, difficult as it was since demobilization of troops was soon in full sway. The IWGC (Imperial War Graves Commission) estimated at the armistice that approximately 500,000 bodies were missing on the Western Front, a great many of these in the Salient (p. 121). Two extraordinary men—Sir Fabian Ware and Captain G.F. Crawford—are connected with the forming and continuing excellent work of what is now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and Steward gives full information on such involved organizations and their work up to the present time.

The author also leaves us with this present day thought at the conclusion of his thorough and very readable book:

With millions of tons of ammunition still believed to be concealed beneath the surface of the fields of Flanders and tens of thousands of bodies of World War One soldiers still unaccounted for, the battlefields of the Ypres Salient of the Great War will still be releasing their secrets long into the future, long after you and I have faded into history (p. 229).

Known Unto God.

David F. Beer


  1. An Air Force officer who worked in munitions described dud munitions as unpredictable & dangerous: you might kick it with impunity or look at it cross-eyed & have it explode.

    The explosive material is not water soluble & still dangerous. Dud or unfired gas shells are corroding with the gas beginning to leak. I had 2 high-school teachers (1950s) with mustard gas burns; not a pretty sight.

    Should you encounter a dud shell, best leave it alone!

    Steve Miller

  2. allies should have forced the germans to clean it up