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First World War poison gas munitions in West Flanders cannot be disarmed

09:15 07/03/2014

Yesterday it was revealed that an installation in Poelkapelle, West Flanders, maintained by the army’s bomb disposal squad Dovo for the dismantling of toxic weapons has not functioned since 2012 because of a defect. 

This week, hundreds of shells from the First World War have been unearthed in a field on the border between the towns of Passendale and Moorslede, the second major find in a two-week period. In late February, thousands of bombs and shells were found stockpiled by farmers in barns in Langemark-Poelkapelle, Zonnebeke and Staden. On that occasion, Poelkapelle mayor Alain Wyffels said the stockpile of weapons risked causing a chain reaction and that the munitions would be destroyed at the Dovo barracks.

Dovo is unable to render the munitions safe and is stocking the bombs instead. The site in Poelkapelle currently holds some 3,200 toxic projectiles – shells containing poison gas, or Yperite, named after the city of Ypres where it was first used.

“Major investments will be required for a new installation,” said army spokesperson Ingrid Baecke. “We have approached the regions about this but have obtained no response.”

Yesterday mayor Wyffels said he had not been aware of problems at the site. “I will do everything I can to see that the installation is quickly repaired,” he said.

West Flanders governor Carl Decaluwé said that “there is no problem regarding safety for those living in the area. For the time being, there is sufficient storage space”.

The exact extent of last week’s find at Passendale is still not clear. The first munitions came to light when farmer Johan Devriendt started to plough under a field previously used as a pasture. On the first day of clearance yesterday, DOVO unearthed 50 projectiles of German origin, one leaking slightly.

The clearance work is expected to take four weeks, according to Dovo’s captain Sven Devroe. Police will patrol the area against souvenir-hunters at night, while the 110 people living within the army’s 700-metre perimeter will be alerted to any emergency by siren and by SMS.

photo by KDS/Het Nieuwsblad

Written by Alan Hope