The UXO problem
Belgium, the battlefield of Europe
Throughout history many conflicts were fought on the lands and seas and in the skies of modern day Belgium. From the many (pre)historical and medieval battles, to the battle of Waterloo and both World Wars. All of them have left a profound mark on our history. Especially the remains of the First and Second World War are still clearly visible… and sometimes deadly.
Belgium during the First World War
When mentioning the Great War in Belgium, people tend to think of “de Westhoek”. Ypres and it’s surroundings, immortalized as Flanders Fields. From Nieuwpoort on the coast to the French border the frontline trenches, carved from no-man’s land, remained roughly in place throughout the war. Despite the many heavy offensives with mass loss of life on both sides to pierce the stalemate, the frontline remained relatively stable. However, in reality, during the four year long conflict, there is not a place in Belgium that hasn’t seen any fighting of some sorts. Think of the battle of Mons, the last cavalry charge of Houthalen-Helchteren, the sieges of the forts protecting Liege, Namur and Antwerp and the stand at the Albert Channel.
During the war roughly 1,5 billion projectiles were fired along the frontline and in the many battles. It is estimated that 20-30% of these failed to detonate. It is assumed that 2-3% contained a toxic content. Many of these unexploded ordnance remain buried in Belgian soil and sporadically resurface. Now, 100 years on, these witnesses of the war are more dangerous then ever.
Belgium during the Second World War
Though it is not exactly known how many aerial bombardments were executed by the air forces of all conflicted nations during the Second World War. These have, with the exception of the V1-V2 strikes on Antwerp and Liege, never been properly mapped. (We are working on it, though).
However, it happens on an increasing basis that during all sorts of excavation-, repair- and construction works unexploded ordnance is found. Besides these threats, there is also, just like during the Great War, the problem of the millions of fired projectiles during the many ground battles fought in Belgium of which the battle of the Scheldt and the Battle of the Bulge are probably the best known examples.
Conventional or Toxic Explosives (CTE, the given name for UXO in Belgium), form a relatively unhighlighted part of daily life in Belgium. Agriculture workers encounter them on a daily basis. Metal detectorists and magnet-hobbyists find them, but often fail to recognize them as a threat in time. Accidents happen, but are rarely deemed newsworthy. It seems as though the knowledge disappears, but the problem only intensifies. Ever had a look on the naval maps off the coast of Knokke-Heist? You will find a no-fishing/no-anchoring zone, just 300m off the coastline. That’s the site of one of the biggest toxic ammunition dumps in the world. Although the guns fell silent a long time ago, they still create victims to this day.
The ‘Dienst voor Opruiming en Vernietiging van Ontploffingstuigen van Defensie’ is responsible for the actual demolition of (historical) UXO in Belgium. DOVO is not actively involved in searching for unexploded ordnance, but rather provides assistance when unexploded ordnance is found. Over 3000 clearance actions are carried out by the DOVO on a yearly basis, which equals about 200 tons of ammunition.