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World - Europe

World War I shells still felt, 80 years later

French farmers find unexploded artillery from World War I  
Unexploded World War I artillery  
CNN's Paris Bureau Chief Peter Humi reports
Windows Media 28K 56K
November 10, 1998
Web posted at: 11:35 p.m. EST (0435 GMT)

PICARDY, France (CNN) -- Even as the world commemorates the 80th anniversary of the end of the "war to end all wars," the debris of that savage conflict still rains down on the Somme battlefield in northeastern France.

More than 800 tons of unexploded World War I shells are discovered each year in the Picardy area of France alone. Eleven members of bomb disposal squads have died this decade, trying to dispose of the shells fired eight decades ago.

Farmers frequently discover British and German grenades, mortars and artillery shells -- along with countless tons of shrapnel -- on the fields that saw one of the bloodiest battles of the war.

The Battle of the Somme raged for more than 100 days. As many as 600 British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed or wounded every day, a figure matched on the German side.

"The soldier right next to me was killed," said 101-year-old French veteran Gabriel Plancher. "It was a rifle shot. He died without knowing what hit him."

The horrors of World War I went far beyond what anyone had expected. An industrially fueled war of attrition, the conflict quickly bogged down into stalemate, with both sides waist-deep in the muck of trenches. An entire generation of young European men was forever changed.

"We had no choice," said Plancher. "We were sent to the front, and we all knew we could die at any time."

Even worse than the Somme was the battle of Verdun, which claimed the lives of half a million French and German soldiers from February to December of 1916. The Germans fired 1 million shells on the first day of the battle alone.

In the end, the war claimed 10 million lives. And some of the few surviving veterans are still wondering what it was all for. "It's pointless," said Plancher. "What's the point of killing each other?"

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