Luc Ervinck, 40, a collector of militaria, was blown up in 2000 when a shell he was examining in his garden shed in Essen exploded, detonating several others in his collection.
Probably the youngest surviving casualty of the war is Maité Roël, who was on a camping trip near Wetteren when she was eight and had her left leg all but severed when one of the logs the children were throwing on the campfire turned out to be a shell.
Between 19 the opposing armies fired an estimated 1.45 billion shells at each other, of which about 66 million contained mustard gas or other toxic chemicals such as phosgene or white phosphorus.
As Vanparys says, ‘The three richest countries in the world at that time [Britain, Germany and France] went bankrupt in four years through producing so much war material.’ Moreover most of the shelling occurred along a front line that changed very little during those four years.
In fact their so-called ‘Iron Harvests’ are bigger now than they were several decades ago, largely because the farmers have heavier and more sophisticated tractors that plough much deeper, and because more construction work is taking place in the towns and villages along the old Western Front.
Last year alone the Belgian military collected 105 tons of munitions, many containing toxic chemicals, and the French police, who run a similar collection service out of a base near Arras, 80 tons. Sometimes, when a long-lost arms cache or depot is discovered, the total is higher still.
Vanparys had retrieved one German shell from a potato field, only to spot another protruding from a ridge of earth a yard away.‘It’s a fairly typical day,’ he says as his team returns to its base with its haul.Nearly 100 years on the Belgian and French authorities are still clearing up the debris of the Great War.It is 9am, and the sun has yet to burn the mist off the rich flat farmland of western Flanders when Dirk Vanparys and two other Belgian soldiers leave their base for their daily tour of the old Western Front.They drive in a large white Mercedes van down straight lanes flanked by vast open fields of wheat and potatoes broken only by the occasional copse or line of poplars.