Iron Harvest

Remnants from the Great War

The Somme battlefields still reveal the impact from the Great War even today, over 100 years later. This is known as the “iron harvest” – every year, shells, grenades, other armaments as well as the items used in every day trench life turn up in astonishing numbers under the plough.

This material is often collected and left at locations across the battlefields for safe collection and disposal, and if you walk the Somme battlefields in particular you will see these small collections at the corners of fields.

Please remember, if you do see these items, that the original purpose of these was to kill. Even today, they can still be dangerous, even fatal. It’s best never to touch grenades or shells, however interesting they look. 

If you visit at the right time of year, just walking along the edges of ploughed fields you will see many twisted and rusty metal fragments. These are shrapnel – the remains of shell casings after the shell exploded. As they flew through the air, they could cause anything from minor flesh wounds to mores serious wounds or could be fatal, depending on the size of the fragment and where it struck. As well as shrapnel, rusted tools and also bullet rounds can be seen (see photos below).

It is also not uncommon to find grenades (such as British Mills bombs) – again these should not be touched as they may explode.

Sometimes these grenades are lying loose, but they can also be seen embedded into the earth – presumably over months and years they work free.

“Silent pickets” were used to hold up barbed wire.  The name came from the fact that, rather than hammering these into the ground which would alert the enemy and draw fire, they had a corkscrew shaped base and so could be “screwed” into the ground silently. A lot of work on the barbed wire in front of the trenches went on at night, and it was important to keep as quiet as possible to avoid attracting enemy fire.  Some of these silent pickets can still be sen in use today on the Somme, holding up wire around fields (photo below right, taken near Bazentin-le-Petit).

Occasionally the remains of Stokes trench mortars can be seen, such as that seen below left, seen on Hawthorn Ridge, near Beaumont Hamel.

The photo below left shows a rusted coil of barbed wire, seen between Montauban and Loungueval. On the right below is a photo of the base of a glass jar or bottle found near the site of the Leipzig Redoubt, close to Thiepval. The glass fragment is around 5 cm across, very thick (around 1.5 cm) and has the words “HENGSTENBERG” and “ges.gesch” on it. Hengstenberg is a German company which was founded in 1876 and which still exists today. They sell foods, including Sauerkraut. The term ‘ges.gesch’  means ‘registered’.  The jar may well have held a meal for a German soldier on the Somme.

Sometimes one does see items that clearly have been touched or dismantled – the photos below show nose-cones from shells, and also on the right what appears to be a twisted and rusted bayonet.

Below are two further “collections” seen – on the left are some bullets and other items which were dug up during the construction of new housing near Neuve Chapelle – the builders had obviously been sorting through them.  On the right are some items including a helmet,  seen near Peake Wood on the Somme.