Given the size of our population, it is very unlikely that we will come across villages which lay abandoned or are ghost villages. But in France, some nine villages remain merely on the map, there is not a single person living there.
During World War One, French and German soldiers completely razed nine villages during the Battle of Verdun, the longest and one of the fiercest artillery battles of the war. Raging for around 300 days and nights in 1916, troops used giant guns – including Germany’s infamous ‘Big Berthas’ – to rain a never-ending barrage of shells over the combat zone. The shells contaminated the earth so badly with lead, arsenic and lethal poison gas, France determined that most of the villages couldn’t be rebuilt.
Over the last 100 years, only one of the destroyed villages has been reconstructed. Another two have been partially rebuilt, but the remaining six, remain uninhabited within France’s Zone Rouge, or Red Zone.
Although no-one lives in any part of the Red Zone and much of it is still considered too dangerous for visitors, French law recognises the destroyed villages as municipalities – there are even designated mayors who receive government money to receive guests and preserve the memory of what’s left.
But life always finds a way. In the decades after the war, millions of saplings – including thousands of Austrian pines given as war reparations by Vienna – were planted in and around the cratered trenches. Today these stalwart pines stand tall. The trees have absorbed enough of the contaminants from the toxic earth to allow other species of flora to thrive, and the land is teeming with life.
The Red zone, in effect has become Green zone although arsenic levels in the soil remain up to 35,000 times higher than normal.
Indeed, no good ever comes out of war; even 100 years on, the impact is so painful, reminding us time and again of its futility.