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BEHIND THE IMAGE: The ‘Iron Harvest’ on the Western Front

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Image: Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.
Image: Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.

No precise details survive of where or when this picture was taken, though we know it dates from the final year of the First World War. The photographer, Tom Aitken, was originally from Glasgow, where he worked in newspapers. He was assigned as a war photographer in December 1917, bearing witness only to the conflict’s final bloody months.

By then, ‘total-war’ mass production had reached a crescendo of industrialised killing. The demand was always for more artillery, more shells, more firepower.

The original caption reads, ‘Some shell cases on the roadside in the front area, the contents of which have been despatched over into the German lines’ – matter-of-fact, official war-speak that belies the meaning of this vast heap of metal cylinders.

A lone soldier stands knee deep, but even these thousands of cases represent only a tiny fraction of the millions of tons of ammunition manufactured and used during the war.

The volume of artillery-fire deployed against human flesh is shocking. A river of metal cylinders flows far into the haze of the distance, contrasting with the elegant avenue of trees behind. The shiny geometric shapes of the shell cases recall the contorted geometric landscape compositions of the painter David Bomberg, their shattered arrangement serving as a metaphor for the industrialised destruction wrought by the war.

The shells, we can assume, are in transit: they have been collected to be refilled. They may have killed already. They are being made ready to kill again.

Between 1914 and 1918, an estimated 1.45 billion shells were fired by the opposing armies, the majority along a relatively small area of the Western Front. Before each major attack there would be days of heavy shelling: in just one week in advance of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, 1,700,000 shells were fired.

It is not surprising, then, that artillery caused more casualties than any other weapon – and the fatalities continue to increase. As the landscape was churned up by the heavy bombardment, many shells (perhaps one in four) failed to explode in the soft mud and were buried. As such, since the end of the war, in France, some 360 people have been killed and 500 wounded as a result of unexploded ordnance, known by local farmers as ‘the Iron Harvest’.


This article is from the November 2015 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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