In an alternate history, the June 1914 assassination of the heir-apparent to the Habsburg Empire could have led to nothing more than a regional squabble. Little more than a policing action in the Balkans. As it was, mutual distrust and entangling alliances drew the Great Powers of Europe into the vortex. On August 3, the “War to End Wars” broke out across the European continent.
The early 20th century has been called the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”, and for good reason. As the diplomatic wranglings, the mobilizations and counter-mobilizations of the “period preparatory to war” unfolded, Sir Ernest Shackleton made the final arrangements for his third expedition into the Antarctic. Despite the outbreak of war, first Lord of the Admiralty Sir Winston Churchill ordered Shackleton to Proceed. The “Endurance” expedition” departed British waters on August 8.
The German invasion of France ground to a halt that September. The first entrenchments were being dug as Shackleton remained in England, departing on September 27 to meet up with the Endurance expedition in Buenos Aires.
As the unofficial Christmas Truce descended over the trenches of Europe, Shackleton’s expedition slowly picked their way through the ice floes of the Weddell Sea.
The disaster of WWI became “Total War” with the zeppelin raids of January, as Endurance met with disaster of its own. The ship was frozen fast, with no hope of escape. As the nine-month battle unfolded across the Gallipoli Peninsula, Shackleton’s men abandoned ship’s routine and converted to winter station. Finally, camps were set up across the drifting ice. On November 21, the wreck of the Endurance slipped below the surface.
In December, Allies began preparations for a summer offensive along the upper reaches of the river Somme. In February, Erich von Falkenhayn began the Verdun offensive that would “bleed France white”, as the Shackleton party camped on an ice pack, adrift in open ocean. The ice was breaking up in April, forcing Shackleton and his party into three small lifeboats. Five brutal days would come and go in open boats, the last of 457 days before reaching land at the desolate shores of Elephant Island.
The whaling stations at South Georgia Island, some 720 miles distant, were their only hope for survival. Shackleton and a party of five set out on April 24 in a 20′ lifeboat. They shouldn’t have made it, but somehow did. In hurricane-force winds, the cliffs of South Georgia Island came into view four weeks later.
They must have been a sight, with thick ice encrusted on long, filthy beards, saltwater-soaked sealskin clothing rotting from their bodies. The first people they came across were children, who ran in fright at the sight of them. At last, on May 20, 1916, the Shackleton expedition was saved.
Ernest Shackleton asked how the war had ended. The response left him without words. “The war isn’t over. Millions are dead. Europe is mad. The world is mad”.
Preparatory bombardment for the Somme offensive began in June, 1,500 guns firing 1.7 million shells into a twelve-mile front. 27 shells for every foot of the front. Allies went “over the top” on July 1, the single worst day in British military history. 19,240 British soldiers were killed in that single day, along with 1,590 French. German losses numbered 10,000–12,000. By July 19 the Somme offensive was just getting started. The battle would last another 122 days.
The toll exacted by the 1st World War was cataclysmic, in human, economic and environmental terms. After the war, hundreds of square miles along the north of France were identified as “Completely devastated. Damage to properties: 100%. Damage to Agriculture: 100%. Impossible to clean. Human life impossible”.
Vast quantities of human and animal remains permeate this “Zone Rouge”, an area saturated with unexploded shells and munitions of all sizes and types: gas, high explosive, anti-personnel. There are hand grenades and bombs, small arms and rusted ammunition, by the truckload.
Lead, mercury, chlorine, arsenic and other toxins permeate the soil. In two areas near Ypres and Woëvre, arsenic constitutes up to 17% of some soil samples. To this day, 99% of all plants still die in these places.
Eighty-seven years after the cessation of hostilities, one “Red Zone” survey uncovered up to 150 shells per 5,000 square meters in the top six inches of soil, alone. An area smaller than an American football field.
The rotor blades from farmers’ tractors often set them off. 76-year-old Claude Samain farms land near Serre, land that was once part of the British front line. As a farm kid in the 1930s, Samain still remembers turning up bodies in his fields. To this day, he is still finding unexploded ordnance. ‘We find shells every time we turn the earth over for potatoes or sugar beet.’
In June 2016, head of the bomb disposal unit at Amiens Michel Colling, said: “Since the start of the year we’ve been called out 300 times to dispose of 25 tons of bombs. As soon as you start turning the earth up”, Colling said, “you find them. At this rate, we have another 500 years to clear the area, so the work is far from over.”