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Michael Thomson

Finding relics on the Somme

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Michael Thomson

Hello everyone. 

 

I've visited the Somme battlefields a few times, but have recently become more interested in the details of the actions that took place there, particularly the First Battleof the Somme in 1916.

 

I constantly see stories of people finding interesting remnants of the fighting all over the Somme battlefields yet when I've walked the woods at Mametz or Delville Wood or the fields alongside Beaumont Hamel or Caterpillar Wood I haven't seen a thing! 

 

I'm a very respectful history enthusiast in that I believe the dignity and sanctity of these battlefields must be observed and so I most certainly don't want to metal detect or dig anything up - these are foremost the resting places of many thousands of men and obviously contain live ammunition still so I most certainly don't think digging is either ethical or wise! - however I'd love to pick up even just a button , a bullet or a shrapnel ball. 

 

Does anybody have any advice on where to look and how to spot things on the surface? 

 

Thanks! 

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Gunner Bailey

Welcome to the forum. It's a good place to learn.

 

Seeing relics against the earth is a bit of an art. At first you will see nothing, but over time you will start to see shapes or part shapes which become identifyable. Someone well practiced in field walking will spot half a dozen shrapnel balls in minutes whereas a first timer won't see them at all.

 

It's all about practice and accumulated experience. Just keep going.

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museumtom

First of all please get permission where you decide to stroll and look.

I have found that finding things on the ground depend on many things. The time of day, the light shines from different angles. Which means you may find something in a place that you passed earlier. Looking after heavy rain can expose times barely below the soil. After ploughing, in the wet, then when dry. Try not to focus just let your eyes pass over the earth slowly. Items like buttons will be circular. Remember man made items usually have shapes where natural items may not. Look for different colours, and shades as these may indicate something deteriorating. Do not rush and just meditate as you look that will reduce the intensity of your quest.

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Gunner Bailey

If you look below High Wood (other side of the road)  many iron items do appear more orange against the soil there. Easy place to find iron shrapnel.

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Michael Thomson

Thank you for your advice Gunner Bailey and Museumtom.

 

I really appreciate the tips. I'll definitely follow your advice on obtaining permission - If I owned the land I'd certainly not like random strangers tramping across it unannounced! When I was last in the Somme (near Beaumont Hamel , Lochnagar Crater and Mametz Wood) I noticed that there were almost no crops in the fields making it very easy to see the bare soil...not that I found anything!  My next trip is hopefully in June...are there usually crops growing at that time of year? Being no farmer myself I do realise it may be a silly question. 

 

Naturally if there are crops busy growing then even contemplating walking in the fields will be a 'no-go' for me. 

 

Thanks again for the info!

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paulgranger

Michael.

If you are a Twitterer, have a look at at @trenchtrotter (Tim Thurlow). He's a battlefield guide, and his tweets are full of details of his finds while walking the Western Front. Other than following him, I've no other connection. 

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Michael Thomson

Thanks paulgranger, I will certainly do that!

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Don Regiano
1 hour ago, Michael Thomson said:

Thank you for your advice Gunner Bailey and Museumtom.

 

I really appreciate the tips. I'll definitely follow your advice on obtaining permission - If I owned the land I'd certainly not like random strangers tramping across it unannounced! When I was last in the Somme (near Beaumont Hamel , Lochnagar Crater and Mametz Wood) I noticed that there were almost no crops in the fields making it very easy to see the bare soil...not that I found anything!  My next trip is hopefully in June...are there usually crops growing at that time of year? Being no farmer myself I do realise it may be a silly question. 

 

Naturally if there are crops busy growing then even contemplating walking in the fields will be a 'no-go' for me. 

 

Thanks again for the info!

 

I would certainly agree with Gunner about High Wood - never fails and you don't need to go too far into the fields.  You will often see relics at the edges of fields.  On one occasion I found a piece of the ignition tube of a shrapnel shell just lying on the road to Martinpuich about 20 yards from the western edge of High Wood.  Of course, you can come across some larger pieces such as in the photo below which was taken at the northeastern corner of High Wood near Cork Alley (High Wood behind the car)DSC03176b.jpg.b016e88e11a94bc4acd0c02cf72b1cd7.jpg.

 

Another place to search is around Guillemont.  This grenade was just at the side of the road a few hundred yards from Maltz Horn Farm.

 

DSC03179a.jpg.4db780406e16d3ba1649830c089be77a.jpg

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chaz

Bit like bird watching and train spotting, you have to pick your time. Sometimes find others nothing.

ploughing season, twice a year normally pulls up the larger items, live and spent shells a regular sight, I've reported a couple to CWGC as live ones left on or behind cemetery walls, last season there were 3 grenades outside one cemetery. Always dodgy when you think schoolchildren visit and always known to be magpies.

on the other hand walking the path to one cemetery yielded around 10 shrapnel balls, normally missed but with recent ploughing and rain they were fairly clean.

but, be careful".... We found a pair of items on a wall, farmers favourite places, on asking on the forum they turned out to be unused stokes mortar projectiles.... Always best to ask. We too have found shells on the side of the road, the first I was nearly forced to drive over by a French woman madly driving a 4x4 down a lane, the second , last year opposite a cemetery where we had just parked to pay our respects!!

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Don Regiano
10 hours ago, chaz said:

Bit like bird watching and train spotting, you have to pick your time. Sometimes find others nothing.

ploughing season, twice a year normally pulls up the larger items, live and spent shells a regular sight, I've reported a couple to CWGC as live ones left on or behind cemetery walls, last season there were 3 grenades outside one cemetery. Always dodgy when you think schoolchildren visit and always known to be magpies.

on the other hand walking the path to one cemetery yielded around 10 shrapnel balls, normally missed but with recent ploughing and rain they were fairly clean.

but, be careful".... We found a pair of items on a wall, farmers favourite places, on asking on the forum they turned out to be unused stokes mortar projectiles.... Always best to ask. We too have found shells on the side of the road, the first I was nearly forced to drive over by a French woman madly driving a 4x4 down a lane, the second , last year opposite a cemetery where we had just parked to pay our respects!!

 

 

Good advice Chaz.  One year I was with my French friend (who lives in England) and was showing him around.  We pulled over just near to where the above grenade was found.  After a quick few minutes' walk we returned to the van (a Mercedes Sprinter or something which we had used to bring across some furniture etc).  I asked him to look where he had pulled over - about 12 inches from the front wheel (driver's side) were 3 unexploded shells hidden in the long grass.  And the date was ... 1 July (we had just caught the end of the Irish ceremony outside Guillemont church).

 

Of course, some stuff is more easy to spot - at the side of the road from Guillemont to Hardecourt-aux-Bois, about 300 yards outside Guillemont, is a favourite spot for people to dump things (and there's always a few shrapnel balls around there too):

 

DSC04906.thumb.JPG.7bfe0eb93bf16514ec1d0d8d4d975563.JPG

 

Within a day or two, the drive band had been chiselled off!

 

Edited by Don Regiano

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horrocks

I've spent weeks wandering around the Somme, and have seen very little when I have looked for it, apart from the usual spent shrapnel shells, and live shells, Mills bombs and Stokes mortar rounds. I was researching the trench where Arnold Ridley was wounded a couple of years ago though, and the location was littered with shrapnel balls and spent and unspent rounds of .303 ammunition. It seems to be very much a function of weather and season - brass and copper items can sometimes show as obviously green against the clay, but not apparently in all weathers. I've been back to Ridley's trench since, and not seen a thing. I found a German rifle clip beside Junger's lane at Guillemont once, but have never seen any items of uniform, buckles, badges or buttons, apart from a German boot heel on the edge of mametz wood, which I suspect had been unearthed by illegal diggers. Trenchtrotter, mentioned above, seems to hoover these things up. Perhaps he's always been there just before me! You do aften see people field walking, obviously looking for items, but it isn't my priority by any means. I tend to be looking up rather than down. It does take a seasoned eye.

 

41 minutes ago, Don Regiano said:

 

Within a day or two, the drive band had been chiselled off!

 

 

That is shocking - people still do that!

Edited by horrocks

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Don Regiano
7 hours ago, horrocks said:

 

That is shocking - people still do that!

 

Agree entirely with your post.

 

With regard to the drive bands, this is still a common occurrence.  On several occasions I have noticed shells which, one or two days after first seeing them, had had their drive bands missing.  We happened to be at our place in France last Remembrance Sunday and, as the village memorial is right outside our house, we went to attend at the due hour.  About an hour before then the Maire asked me to ensure the Union flag was properly affixed to the memorial (which I duly did) while he was attending to matters at the Augustin Cochin calvaire on the other side of the village.  At the ceremony we were re-acquainted with one of our French neighbours.  After the ceremony we were invited back to the village hall for drinks and food and our neighbour then invited us to his house.  He proudly showed us a clock in his lounge with the clock face surround he had made from a shell's drive band which he had taken from a shell he had found.  When I expressed my concern at that activity, in typical French style, he passed it off as nothing to be worried about.  He showed me his cellar which, in addition to the usual bottles of vin, had buckets full of shrapnel balls and fuzes which he had collected over the years.  I suspect I will be receiving an invite shortly to join him in one of his field walks.  I will think long and hard before accepting!

 

 

DSC06041.JPG

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Michael Thomson

Please forgive my ignorance but why are drive bands so desirable to people? I've only just learned what a drive band is (thanks to Google!) and can't imagine what use or value they could have? 

 

It seems like a very dangerous and quite silly thing to go and tamper with a live shell to remove one of these.What on earth for? 

 

On that note, how dangerous are the unexploded munitions that lie around? I most certainly don't want to find out for myself but if you consider how many tons of rusting munitions are lying all around the Somme with people ploughing over them, walking and driving over them if they're buried under the surface,  and handling them- what are the chances they would explode? 

 

As I said, I most certainly don't think anybody should test this to find out but surely people have had some 'hairy' situations? I know the Lochnagar Crater website contained some fairly stern and sobering warnings about what's lying around in the vicinity.

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Buffnut453
25 minutes ago, Michael Thomson said:

On that note, how dangerous are the unexploded munitions that lie around? I most certainly don't want to find out for myself but if you consider how many tons of rusting munitions are lying all around the Somme with people ploughing over them, walking and driving over them if they're buried under the surface,  and handling them- what are the chances they would explode? 

 

As I said, I most certainly don't think anybody should test this to find out but surely people have had some 'hairy' situations? I know the Lochnagar Crater website contained some fairly stern and sobering warnings about what's lying around in the vicinity.

 

Google "Iron Harvest" for some pretty scary numbers.  Over 600 people killed since WW1 due to unexploded munitions unexpectedly going "bang!"  Bottom line...if it might possibly be a munition or a fuse, leave it well alone.

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jay dubaya

 

5 minutes ago, Buffnut453 said:

Over 600 people killed since WW1 due to unexploded munitions unexpectedly going "bang!"

 

I would estimate 600 within the first decade of peace at least, the number must run much higher today.

 

Amongst curios and other things, drive bands and fuzes have a brass/bronze scrap value. The Iron Harvest continues to claim lives to this day Michael and would only urge that you do not touch and stay well clear of anything that you are unsure about, if it looks like it hasn't 'gone off' it probably hasn't.  Some unexploded munitions will still have the effects the were produced for over a 100 years ago.

 

J

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Michael Thomson

Thanks jay dubaya and Buffnut453...I have absolutely no intention of touching anything! Quite independently I think touching anything that you cannot identify or that looks like it might be ammunition is a very very bad idea but my wife, who is a qualified safety officer and my travelling companion, is in full and very vociferous agreement that absolutely nothing gets touched and she's not afraid to enforce that! She's even giving me a bit of a hard time at the idea of simply field walking to find shrapnel balls or a badge or button...

 

It just astonishes me that there is so much dangerous ordnance just lying around still...in today's 'safety-minded' world it is hard to compute.

 

 

 

 

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Buffnut453

There's just too much of it and some is very deep underground that the costs of retrieval would be astronomical.  Something like 160 tonnes of munitions were recovered just last year alone.  Just think how much has already been cleared in the past 100 years and we're still finding that much unexploded ordnance.  The scale is simply mind-blowing.

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Michael Thomson
16 minutes ago, Buffnut453 said:

 The scale is simply mind-blowing.

 

I'm in complete agreement.

 

WW1 really does seem like a conflict of superlative proportions in every sense.

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chaz

post-14295-1196678484.jpgI have read it's thought that munitions will still be turning up for the next 500 years.

as for driving bands, once I posted a picture of one of mine that has been heavily cleaned and polished and has an inscription inside so acting like a bracelet.

Edited by chaz

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Don Regiano
1 hour ago, Michael Thomson said:

Thanks jay dubaya and Buffnut453...I have absolutely no intention of touching anything! Quite independently I think touching anything that you cannot identify or that looks like it might be ammunition is a very very bad idea but my wife, who is a qualified safety officer and my travelling companion, is in full and very vociferous agreement that absolutely nothing gets touched and she's not afraid to enforce that! She's even giving me a bit of a hard time at the idea of simply field walking to find shrapnel balls or a badge or button...

 

It just astonishes me that there is so much dangerous ordnance just lying around still...in today's 'safety-minded' world it is hard to compute.

 

 

 

 

 

I wouldn't become too paranoid about it Michael, although I must admit my "alarm index" increased when I came across that grenade at the side of the road as it could have been volatile.  Mention has been made of a possibility, even now, of a risk from gas.  However, I think the odds would be very long against anything happening if sensible precautions are taken or even if you managed accidentally to tread on something (famous last words). 

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Gunner Bailey
On 30/01/2019 at 23:21, Don Regiano said:

 

I wouldn't become too paranoid about it Michael, although I must admit my "alarm index" increased when I came across that grenade at the side of the road as it could have been volatile.  Mention has been made of a possibility, even now, of a risk from gas.  However, I think the odds would be very long against anything happening if sensible precautions are taken or even if you managed accidentally to tread on something (famous last words). 

 

I saw some photos a while ago of a Dutchman who disturbed a Mustard Gas shell in France and received terrible burns/ blistering.

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sheldrake

 

There are several threads including on this forum over the last fifteen years about  it being illegal to remove remains from battlefields in France because these have been classified as national monuments. https://www.metaldetectingforum.co.uk/viewtopic.php?t=29559  and 

 

 

There are signs warning against bringing munitions back through the channel tunnel. The security services take a very dim view of  people who try to smuggle weapons or explosives,  

 

You might think what does it matter you remove some old shrapnel balls, cases, driving bands, buttons or cap badges. There are heaps of this stuff.   From a heritage point of view it matters because the science behind archaeology is developing.  the scatter of shot and other battlefield detritus has been invaluable in providing new interpretations for old battles.  There may come a time when metallurgy and computing power will be able to make something from the scatter of WW1 munitions - or would be if they weren't adorning mantle pieces.  By picking up items from the battlefield you make it harder for future historians to understand what happened.   

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voltaire60
1 hour ago, sheldrake said:

 

There are several threads including on this forum over the last fifteen years about  it being illegal to remove remains from battlefields in France because these have been classified as national monuments. https://www.metaldetectingforum.co.uk/viewtopic.php?t=29559  and 

 

 

There are signs warning against bringing munitions back through the channel tunnel. The security services take a very dim view of  people who try to smuggle weapons or explosives,  

 

You might think what does it matter you remove some old shrapnel balls, cases, driving bands, buttons or cap badges. There are heaps of this stuff.   From a heritage point of view it matters because the science behind archaeology is developing.  the scatter of shot and other battlefield detritus has been invaluable in providing new interpretations for old battles.  There may come a time when metallurgy and computing power will be able to make something from the scatter of WW1 munitions - or would be if they weren't adorning mantle pieces.  By picking up items from the battlefield you make it harder for future historians to understand what happened.   

 

      Hear,hear- high time for  some reminders that it is unlawful to take the stuff- that has been the legal position for a considerable time and is most unlikely to change. 2 observations on this:

 

1) It is but a short time ago that some British schoolkids were detained for picking stuff up at Auschwitz- a world heritage site.  The government of the Republic (I'm not absolutely sure about the Kingdom of Belgium) have made the battlefields heritage sites within their jurisdiction. So, none of this nonsense about what to pick up, when to pick it up, how best to spot it, etc-JUST LEAVE IT WHERE IT IS.

 

2) Advances in archaeology-yes. Always evolving. It is now 30-odd years since there was a modern forensic archaeological dig  (by the National Parks Service?) of the Custer site at the Little Big Horn, which had very interesting results through analysis of type and location of cartridge cases in particular. Well worth a read.

    It is now more than a hundred years since the movement to stop the looting of war relics began -the first example that seems to have caused an outcry was in 1897 when the London auctioneers, Stevens and Son, of King Street, St. James went a bit too far. They specialised in natural history specimens-stuffed birds, tortoise shells, eggs,butterflies and any other "archaeological" or ethnographical  artefact  that came along. A retired British army officer consigned the bleached bones of some British soldiers that he had found while visiting Afghanistan not that many years before. British bones at  Gandamak and Jellalabad (Last Stand of the 44th and all that stuff) from 1842 were still there-as,indeed, were British and Indian bones from Maiwand. There was at that time no law to stop them either being taken-or offered for sale. It took a firm letter from the Home Office to "persuade" the auctioneers to withdraw the lot.  

    Nowadays, there are LAWS- so,hey folks, why not try obeying them?   Respect the memory of the dead, respect our heritage and respect the legal codes of other countries in such matters

 

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Michelle Young

Members are reminded of the header at the start of this sub forum regards the danger of ordnance. I think it's time to take a break , and will consult with other members of the team about re opening.

 

Michelle 

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keithmroberts

Can we be quite clear. handling unexploded munitions is a job for experts. By them I mean the French and Belgian military specialists who arrange safe disposal. The only advice to anyone is don't pick them up, don't  even touch them.

 

I have removed some comments and edited one and will now  re-open this thread, but please, no suggestions about safe handling or anything of the sort. Just don't.

 

 

Keith

GWF team

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