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Philippe Frutier
Lieu Historique National du Canada de la Cr

Keywords

- Artois - Red Zone - Vimy

The rehabilitation of Artois farmland

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By the end of the war the land around the front had been transformed into an apocalyptic wasteland littered with rubble and riddled with thousands of shell and mine craters, trenches and communication tunnels. In 1919 the department of Pas-de-Calais had 26,409 hectares of land in the Red Zone, of which 20,500 hectares belonged to the district of Arras alone. Before the land could be returned to its owners it had to be depolluted, and this began in late 1918.

Most of the clean-up operation was carried out by soldiers and prisoners of war although civilian workers were also employed. The work consisted of recovering unexploded munitions and the corpses of fallen soldiers which, after identification (or not), where given a decent burial in the nearest military cemeteries. Also the huge amounts of building materials and debris used by the armies to construct field fortifications had to be cleared away. The removal of the miles of barbed wire entanglements was a huge challenge and took a number of years. For instance, 716,430 cubic metres of barbed wire were still awaiting collection from various roadside depots in Pas-de-Calais in May 1922.

Once the initial surface clearing operations had been completed the next step was to remove the ruined buildings and proceed with the remodelling of the land itself, especially farmland which was vital to the local economy. The size of the task was colossal and, with relatively little mechanical help available, it took many long months––even years in some sectors––before the work made any visible impact. In 1922 land levelling work was still underway in several villages in the district of Vimy while in Souchez it continued into the summer of the following year. Once the levelling work was complete surveyors moved in to measure the land to begin afresh the land registry.

The war had had a huge impact on the landscape and this particularly affected the farming community. Aware of the problem, the Ministry for Reconstruction soon inventoried all the war-affected farmland (see illustration). In the district of Vimy only 16% of farmland was available for immediate replanting, 44.5% required slight or extensive work and the remaining 36.5% was recommended to be abandoned and turned into woodland. For the most-affected villages the statistics are even more significant with nearly 70% of agricultural land in the district of Thélus and 37% in Neuville-Saint-Vaast being listed as unfit for planting in 1919.

Nevertheless, the challenge of rehabilitating Artois's farmland was met within in a period of less than ten years, thanks in the main to the farmers themselves. Speaking before the General Council in 1922, Prefect Clausel paid tribute to "the admirable efforts of the rural population of Artois... to replant these lands, once so fertile, that the war turned to chaos and seemed to condemn to desolation and sterility". Although farmers began returning to their devastated villages in late 1918, the main thrust of the repatriation effort took place in 1919 and 1920. By 1927 this vast operation to rehabilitate the land had reduced the surface area of the red zone to a mere 484 hectares situated in the districts which saw the most fighting in Artois during the Great War: Souchez, Vimy, Givenchy-en-Gohelle, Thélus and Neuville-Saint-Vaast.


Yann HODICQ
Member of the History and Archeology Commission
of the Pas-de-Calais département


                                                                       Distribution of the RED ZONE
                                                                       in Pas-de-Calais in 1919 

Répartition par cantons de la ZONE ROUGE du Pas-de-Calais en 1919

Surface area

of the Red Zone

in Pas-de-Calais

 

 

Year

Area

(ha.)

1919

26,409

1921

2,131

1922

484