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Remembered Today:

Unexploded stuff


Captain Dave
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Does anybody have any idea how long we can expect to see blinds being dug up from old battlefields? How long does an area have to go for before it is safe?

I was discussing this with people the other night and everyone had their own idea as to how long an unexploded arty shell can last underground. Obviously factors such as water level, humidity, depth etc must play a part, but is there any accepted time period that unexploded orgdanance will finaly render itself inert?

I guessed in 200 years. This could even be optimistic for all I know.

One clown also tried to tell me that all armys used solid shot (exclusivly) up to 1914.

Anyway, feedback welcome.

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Abot the solid shots: NO WAY.

I am no expert, but that i know for sure.

About the shells.

Well, i live at Broodseinde Ridge near Zonnebeke and Passchendaele. Yesterday a far neighbour dug up a german shell, full and dangerous.

If you see that each year about 12 000 000 pounds of ammo is destroyed by DOVO (the ammunition disposal) and you know that 90% is WW1 ammunition, then you know it will last for ever... ;)

The clay layers in the salient are like super preservers (Aurel Sercu will confirm that) I even saw frech dug up bullets who were still shining!

So it is hard to tell, but indeed it will be for a very long time.

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This is potentially a "how long is a piece of string" type question. To that end a simple answer is probably unattainable however in order to inform the debate a few facts and statistics might help to educate the quess work - so here goes:

1. The sheer number of shells (approx 300,000 in the week long barrage leading up to 1 Jul 16 alone) that failed to go bang. Probably in excess of 3m along the British sector of the western front alone. Those areas of the Western Front affected will probably never be able to be declared "explosive free".

2. The thickness of shell walls. As anyone who has found a piece of shrapnel will testify, the majority of British HE shells had relatively thick steel walls. This was essentially to withstand the enourmous pressures produced within the gun barrel at the moment of firing. Sadly, because of the relative inefficiency of the explosive compound contained within (compared to modern equivalents) this meant that you got large vicious pieces of shrapnel whizzing around the battlefield producing such horrendous wounds and injuries as a result. The modern British 155mm HE shell has much thinner but very much stronger walls (better grade steel to withstand muzzle velocitys of up to 930m per second for max range) and is filled with a highly efficient explosive which produces many more but significantly smaller shrapnel fragments thereby incuring more but lesser injuries over a wider area. These great thick walled shells, even after 90 years remain virtually inpervious to errosion except for some surface oxidation or rust and can therefore go on for a considerable time yet - especially if no moisture is allowed to get in throught the area of the fuse fitting.

3. The resistance of relatively simple explosive compounds (again compared to today) means that they too last quite well. The problem is when they start to decompose and potentially become unstable. Most explosive is relatively "safe" in its stable form. It become voltatile when it begins to degenerate or is detonated on purpose or accidentally. In any case there is no hard and fast way of visibly determining when this is the case and so all old ordnance must be treated with the utmost caution.

4. State of ground on impact. Even on the relatively hard packed chalk of the Somme ( as we find on the same ground at our Larkhill ranges in Wiltshire today) shells can simply fail to function on impact. This can be due to a number of factotrs; fuze malfunction, angle of landing or graze, incorrect fuze setting ...the list goes on and on. In the much wetter and softer ground of the Flanders plain the "dud" or "blind" rate would have been that much higher simply becaue the soft earth was insufficiently firm to produce the impact response required to make the fuze function.

5. Finally, behaviour of the shells. If they fail to detonate, shells (which are still travelling at very high speed) can ricochet in the most alarming manner and end up just about anywhere - a real problem in peace time range safety planning. If they dig in to soft earth, and because they are still spinning, they can literally behave like crazed moles, digging down before being deflected off a firmer level of sub-strata to re-emerge and climb again to land goodness knows where - perhaps explaining the odd phenomenon of shells landing half way up trees some considerable distance from the front. You will be pleased and reassured to know that these days we avoid the problem by ensure steep arrival angles and very large safety areas around our artillery ranges.

Hope this helps

Regards

David ;)

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The bomb disposal squad at Metz reckons that there is at least 300 years' worth of unexploded ordnance to dispose of at Verdun.

Christina

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Thank you all for your promt replys. Based on the statistics and the proffessional knowledge from the RA, I am going to run with the 300 years from the last round being fired answer.

If I'm wrong, it ain't gonna matter too much!

Interesting about the steep arrival angles for modern arty. I would have thought that one of the main types of training to be conducted would be long range, which would entail a shallow trajectory.

I am but an amatuer in the ways of the guns. I do know that I am going to have an all out argument with the idiot over the matter of solid shot though. I tried to point out that shrapenel was around in Wellingtons army, but was told that it was just canister.

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Just to confirm that shrapnel (then called cannister) was around in Wellingtons's time. It was basically the same thing - a shell or then a tin or "canister" full of round metal balls - the principal and effect are exactly the same! Confusion reigns because "shrapnel" the shell was a carrier full of shrapnel balls whereas shrapnel per se is the name given to the fragments of steel produced when an HE shell bursts.

Finally with regard to our modern day practices we are restricted in the distances we fire our shells by the size of our ranges. We are constrained by the fact that for obvious reasons we do not regularly fire over main roads or large centres of populations (the inhabitants odf the villages along the A348 from Amesbury to Upavon will dispute this!) but in reality our average range during live firing practices is probably between 8 - 12 Kms. From a training point of view the range the shell goes is relatively immaterial. Its how you fire it and what you do where it lands that is important.

Hope this helps with the argument vs the idiot!

Regards

David

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Hi David,

Just a small correction if I might:

Napoleonic Canister and Shrapnel were not at all the same thing.

Canister was a thin tin can full of lead balls and used like an enormous shotgun. Its effect at short ranges was devistating.

Shrapnel, invented by Henry Shrapnel, originally called Spherical Case and later bearing his name..was a hollow ball, filled with musket balls and a dispersing charge. It was fused and had to have the fuse cut at just the right length for the range to target or it exploded almost harmlessly, too high and short, or fell to ground were the fuse could be (and often was) extinghished.

On the question of ordinance remaining, a programme I watched on 5 different wars and theatres quoted the French as saying they had about 300 years worth left to dig up, at current rate. This seems to fit with an earlier post.

regards

Darryl

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There have been quite a few previous threads discussing this, may be worth having a search for more info. The book (and documentary) 'Aftermath' by Donovan Webster is an excellent source of information.

Considering that in certain areas it is estimated 1000 shells fell per square meter and perhaps 20% did not explode it gives you some idea. The demineurs estimate some 400 years to clear the battlefields.

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The demineurs estimate some 400 years to clear the battlefields

With the footnote that this estimate does not take into account new additions of things that won't go bang. 400 years is a long time, you never know :D

Regards,

Marco

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The following can be found on the Somme Battlefield Web page, link

http://www.somme-battlefields.com/en/war/clearing.aspx

Between 1914 and 1918, a total of more than a billion shells (including 50,000,000 gas shells) were produced and fired by the French, British and German artillery. Verdun and the Somme consumed the greatest number, for ahead of the Marne and the remainder of the Western Front. In comparison, the Second World War used two hundred times fewer shells.

These figures reveal the scale of the task of the eight men still employed by the ammunition disposal service of the Somme and the Oise departments, who are responsible for cleaning the land. They estimate that at the current rate (between 70 and 80 tonnes of shells come to the surface every year), shells remain in sufficient numbers to continue appearing for another seven or eight centuries. This is without considering the danger to the disposal service workers: of the 127 men employed in this work throughout the whole of France, twelve have died at work since 1986, and every year a civilian is killed in the department of the Somme.

It makes the estimate of 3-400 years a bit low.

Peter ;)

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The stastics of the Great War are truly mind boggling. Consider that the British alone lobbed 5 million tonnes of metal at the enemy - try picturing that that as shipping tonnage.

Regarding 18 pounder shells alone, the total fired amounts to more than 40 for every single minute of the entire war.

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Darryl, many thanks - you live and learn and I stand corrected. As a professional Gunner I should know better, but I think the lecture on 19th century ammo passed me by as a YO (young officer) it was probably on a Friday morning after a particularly tough Thursday night party at Larkhill!!

Seriously though, this is new to me. I realise cannister was used a la shotgun but did not realise shrapnel needed to have a lit fuse at just the right length. Still snuffing it out must still have been somewhat akin to throwing back the ill timed hand grenade - any view?

regards

David

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Bcerha,

The noble Richard Sharpe tosses away shrapnel shells and snubs their fuses with his fingers at the Battle of Waterloo: a fictional boys' own tale, but Cornwell does an awful lot of research with regard to the era and, to my knowledge, incorporates such specific recollections into the plot lines.

There was also a chap who had a rocket troop at Waterloo (Congreve?), but I don't think they had much success. (I think t.v. historian/architect Dan Cruickshank got the RA to make and fire some for one of his series a few years ago.)

Richard

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Re canister/shrapnel: I`ve always had the impression from museums of WW1 and the US Civil War that canister balls were appreciably bigger than shrapnel balls. From memory, about 25mm as opposed to 10mm diameter. I reckon this would make it about 15 times heavier, if of the same material. It`s not much of a choice, but I always felt I`d rather be hit by shrapnel than canister! Phil B

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Guest AmericanDoughboy

A rumor that I have heard was that there are still two remaining unexploded gas shells in Passchendaele. I do not know much about it but I know that I have been told by a museum tour guide.

-Doughboy

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A rumor that I have heard was that there are still two remaining unexploded gas shells in Passchendaele. I do not know much about it but I know that I have been told by a museum tour guide.

-Doughboy

Only 2??? :D That should be marvelous! Each year they find dozens of them...

In Poelcappelle where the disposal unit works there are waiting hunderds of these to be disarmed!

And it the Northsea, Paardenbank, Nieuport at the mounding of the river Yser there is a post WW1 british dump with 1000 or more Yperite and Chlorine shells.

Each year navy divers check it to see the condition of it + safety.

There is enough ammo in Flanders fields to provide another Gulf war...

cheers,

kristof

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Not the last word- - -but on a trip a few years ago,I was told that dangerous items would remain in an unstable state for 700 years.

I shan`t be around to find out!

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David

Darryl, many thanks - you live and learn and I stand corrected. As a professional Gunner I should know better

Still snuffing it out must still have been somewhat akin to throwing back the ill timed hand grenade - any view?

David,

No problems.

And you have proven my long held theory that you can tell gunners anything.....you just have to tell them LOUDLY.. :D

(bet you never heard THAT one before :rolleyes: )

I guess the advantage when snuffing out a fuse is that you can at least see where it has burnt to. The "Jam Tin Bombs" at Gallipoli spring to mind. Still, not something I would take up as a hobby,

best regards

Darryl

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Speak up Darryl, I didn't quite catch that last one!!! Must be my Gunnerear playing up again!

Regards

David :D

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Must be my Gunnerear playing up again!

Gunnerear?

That's not how you spell it, and why would such a thing effect your hearing? :lol:

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Must be my Gunnerear playing up again!

Gunnerear?

That's not how you spell it, and why would such a thing effect your hearing? :lol:

And judging by the name, DD is a man who should know :lol:

Darryl

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Guest Kieron Hoyle

There are still huge numbers of shells turning up on the Somme each year - our (small) village manages to fill a rather large crate two or three times a year and many of these are shells that have failed to go off - including a good number of gas shells. Sadly there does seem to be at least one report in the local Courier each year of someone killed or injured by First War shells and grenades.

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I remember that at Staff College we saw a film about how to mount an ambush. There they were for several days waiting, no one speaking; communication by hand signal only.

Then we had another film on how to mount a roadblock. They used an armoured car as a moveable block. There were the gunners screaming at one another and using microphones as well.

I did ask, why the difference, but there was just a shrug, 'they're gunners'.

The non-logic still makes me laugh.

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