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Paul 🌹📚 Cooper @PaulMMCooper
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One of the most chilling abandoned places in the world is France's Red Zone, or "Zone Rouge".

Over 100 years ago, the First World War so devastated the landscape here that people are still forbidden to enter, & the zone has become a ghostly & overgrown place.
As the First World War drew to a close in 1918, Europe had to face the consequences of the most apocalyptic conflict ever seen.

18 million people were dead, while towns & cities lay in ruins. Disease & hunger ravaged the population.
For France and Belgium, the countries that hosted the war's main theatre, the Western Front, there was another consequence: large parts of the country were now uninhabitable wastes of shell-churned mud.
Along this 700km stretch of trenches & barbed wire, the land was a hellscape. Roads, woods, farms & villages were unrecognisable.

Only a sea of mud remained, poisoned by lead, mercury, chlorine, arsenic, acids, & the remains of the humans & animals that had died there.
Millions of unexploded shells also lay in the mud. At Verdun alone, 14 million shells were fired, & perhaps a total of 1bn were fired over the whole war.

Experiments conducted in 2005 discovered up to 300 shells per 10,000m², including chemical agents like mustard gas.
Faced with this monstrous environmental challenge, the French government had little choice. They fenced off an area of 1,200km², & forbade anyone entry.

This would become known as the red zone, or "Zone Rouge".

(Olivier Saint Hilaire…)
The areas covered by the Zone Rouge (right) roughly follow the lines of trenches along the Western Front. (left)

The zone was defined as those areas "Completely devastated. Damage to properties: 100%. Damage to Agriculture: 100%. Impossible to clean. Human life impossible."
But contained & left over to nature, the zone surprised everyone. It quickly recovered much of its natural life.

The ruined villages were overgrown with trees & vines, while grass crept over the troughs of the scarred landscape.

(Michael St. Maur Sheil
Even the trenches themselves have become overgrown with wildlife, slowly reclaimed by nature & now only visible from the air.

(Michael St. Maur Sheil
One French study (Parent G.-H., 2004…) describes how the recolonisation of the zone's landscape occurred.

Its authors describe a peculiar flourishing of snails & rodents, voles & collared mice, as well as an "explosion in the population of wildcats".
They also describe great stretches of hardy juniper trees that dominate in the tough conditions of the zone.

These trees give cover to large animals like wild boar & deer, although the livers of these animals have been found to contain abnormally high levels of lead.
Although today the Zone Rouge has been largely repopulated, there are still no-go areas.

On two pieces of land close to Ypres and Woëvre, a study by Bausinger et al ( found that 99% of plants still die, & arsenic can constitute up to 17% of the soil.
These places now form surreal landscapes of disappearance, where the villages that once stood there are marked only by signs.

"Douaumont, destroyed village"

(Olivier Saint Hilaire…)
The effect is ghostly. Everywhere the vanished towns and villages are marked by signs that reflect what once stood there.

"Here stood the church"

(Olivier Saint Hilaire…)
It is a landscape dedicated to what has disappeared, pointing only to absence.

"School hall" / "High street"

(Olivier Saint Hilaire…)
One plaque even reads "In memory of water. In this place stood one of the fountains of Douaumont"

(Olivier Saint Hilaire…)
Today, although the zone has shrunk dramatically, it is still a ghostly landscape, traversed only by those authorised to do so, the "démineurs", or deminers.

(Olivier Saint Hilaire…)
In places, the skeletons of vanished constructions still point to where towns & villages once stood.

"At these sites a sense of place is powerfully created by a legacy of destruction"

- Stephen Miles, in "Displaced Heritage", ed. Convery et al.

Some of the destroyed villages even still elect mayors, who are elected by the descendants of those who fled them at the start of the war, spread throughout France & the rest of the world.…
While these conscious efforts to remember go on, the land also doesn't let us forget.

Monsters still lurch up out of the earth. Enormous shells are dug up. Whole tanks dredged from the ground where they sank over 100 years ago.

(Olivier Saint Hilaire…)
Today, French government démineurs still recover about 900 tons of ordnance every year, & in Belgium the amount is around 200 tons.

According to the Sécurité Civile, at the current rate no fewer than 700 years will need to pass before the area is completely clean.
However, some believe the zone will never be cleared.

Today the zone stands as a living testament to the destruction of those years, a chilling reminder of the cost of war, as well as the resiliency of nature & its power to overcome our mistakes.
Some sources for further reading:

- Rising Above the Ruins in France, by Corinna Haven Smith (…)

- Displaced Heritage, ed. Convery et al. (…)

- Parent G.-H., 2004. Trois études sur la Zone Rouge de Verdun... (…)
Thanks are also due to @oniropolis for posting about this place a little while back and bringing my attention to these kinds of restricted zones.

Please also check out the work of the photographer Olivier Saint Hilaire here:
Thanks for listening! If you found this interesting, I've put together more of my research into this thread.
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