Recovered toxic ordnance is handled and dismantled by personnel wearing full biochemical protection suits. Although the gas shells are now a century old their contents have lost none of their toxicity.
The shell with its toxic and explosive content is destroyed under highly controlled conditions. Depending on the shell’s contents, this is done by detonation or burning in specific dismantling facilities. The off-gasses are treated prior to release into the open air. Scrap and debris following the destruction of the projectiles are dealt with by specific contractors. The Australian soldiers in this image are all carrying box respirators, essential for survival in trench warfare.
"The exaggerated machinations of hell are here typified. Everywhere the ground is littered with bits of guns, bayonets, shells and men Oh, the frightfulness of it all Until my dying day I shall never forget this"
Captain Frank Hurley , Official Photographer of the AIF, 23 August 1917, at ‘Hill 60’
The construction of new buildings or road developments carries a particularly high risk to building contractors. Construction sites in Flanders will occasionally employ civilian contracted detection companies to identify and manage the inevitable unearthing of unexploded ammunition until its recovery by personnel of DOVO-SEDEE.
The construction site in the this image is in Ypres. Nine Victoria Crosses were awarded to the men of the AIF for their gallantry in the battles that raged around this town in 1917.
“The concussion is simply awful. No one could ever image it unless they had actually experienced it. Nothing but great spurts of flame, screaming and sizzling of shells, and banging and crashing of big guns. At times it becomes so terrific … it is simply one great throbbing, pulsating jolting roaring inferno”.
Lieutenant Cyril Lawrence, 1st Field Company, Australian Engineers
Crate number 143 of Great War vintage ammunition awaiting its destruction. Recovered from Flanders former battlefields, it is a sobering indication of the scale of the problem.
Each shell is barcoded primarily for the purpose of traceability through the complex disposal process. Another advantage of this system is that it allows the creation of a database of all types of ammunition recovered on the battlefield. The chalk circle indicates the filling point of the shell’s chemical contents during its manufacture. The grooved band on each shell’s base indicates it has been fired but failed to explode.
‘Promptly on the tick of five, there belched a blinding sheet of flame: and the roar – Nothing I have heard in this world or can in the next could possibly approach its equal’
Captain Frank Hurley, diary entry 20 September 1917, Passchendaele
An 8” British high-explosive shell is recovered from drainage works being undertaken in the back garden of a house in modern day Passchendaele. For the residents of Flanders, more specifically the south-west, such find’s are commonplace.
The team leader will decide on whether to evacuate the immediate population during the recovery of ammunition having assessed the shell’s technical characteristics, and both the environmental and situational circumstances. The recovery of the shell to the awaiting truck is completed in a few short minutes.
“They’re not heroes. They do not intend to be thought or spoken of as heroes. They’re just ordinary Australians, doing their particular work as their country would wish them to do it. And pray God, Australians in days to come will be worthy of them”.
C. E. W. Bean, journalist, war correspondent, historian
Flander’s seemingly conventional flat landscape gives clues to its more sinister nature after periods of rain. As a result of a combination of a landscape destroyed through bombardment and prolonged periods of heavy rain, countless men and mules drowned in the morass at Passchendaele.
It took the population of Flanders three years of labour to fill the craters left after the fighting. During this time exhumation companies - made up in many instances by many of the 96,000 members of the Chinese Labour Corps - worked tirelessly to exhume the fallen men from the then healing landscape.
“We thought we managed alright, kept the awful things out of our minds, but now I’m an old man and they come out from where I hid them. Every night.”
Jim McPhee from Drouin in Victoria, a Field Ambulance veteran of Gallipoli and the Western Front