The Zone Rouge (English: Red Zone) is a chain of non-contiguous areas throughout northeastern France that the French government isolated after the First World War. The land, which originally covered more than 1,200 square kilometres (460 sq mi), was deemed too physically and environmentally damaged by conflict for human habitation. Rather than attempt to immediately clean up the former battlefields, the land was allowed to return to nature. Restrictions within the Zone Rouge still exist today, although the control areas have been greatly reduced.
The Zone Rouge was defined just after the war as "Completely devastated. Damage to properties: 100%. Damage to Agriculture: 100%. Impossible to clean. Human life impossible".
Under French law, activities such as housing, farming, or forestry were temporarily or permanently forbidden in the Zone Rouge, because of the vast amounts of human and animal remains, and millions of items of unexploded ordnance contaminating the land. Some towns and villages were never permitted to be rebuilt after the war.
The area is saturated with unexploded shells (including many gas shells), grenades, and rusty ammunition. Soils were heavily polluted by lead, mercury, chlorine, arsenic, various dangerous gases, acids, and human and animal remains. The area was also littered with ammunition depots and chemical plants.
Each year, dozens of tons of unexploded shells are recovered. According to the Sécurité Civile agency in charge, at the current rate 300 to 700 more years will be needed to clean the area completely. Some experiments conducted in 2005–06 discovered up to 300 shells per hectare (120 per acre) in the top 15 cm (6 inches) of soil in the worst areas.
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- Map of the Western Front in 1918 (in English)
- Déminage à Douaumont (in French and English)
- National Geographic: France’s Zone Rouge is a Lingering Reminder of World War I (in English)