When you picture France, you probably think of a lush countryside or the romantic “City of Lights” (Paris). However, France didn’t always seem that way, and during the horrors of World War I, it had a much bleaker landscape.

That’s because, deep within its borders, there lies a 460-square-mile section known as Zone Rouge (“Red Zone”), which has been forbidden from public use for nearly a century. When you see what’s hiding within this dangerous place, you may never look at France the same way again.

In World War I, near the French town of Verdun, 460 square miles of forest became the site of one of the bloodiest battles in recorded history. The Battle of Verdun lasted for 303 days and killed 70,000 soldiers per month.

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Today, the area is considered extremely dangerous because of all the unexploded munitions in the ground. Experts say that it would take 300 to 700 years to clean the area, though it may even be impossible, due to the number of toxins absorbed by the soil.

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In 2004, German researchers found that the soil contained 17% arsenic, which is tens of thousands of times higher than typical levels. The government determined that it was necessary to completely relocate everyone living there. Whole towns were evacuated and wiped off the map after being deemed “casualties of war.”

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This sign translates to “Here stood the church.” Unfortunately, no person would be able to safey practice their faith on these grounds—though, before the arsenic levels were discovered, unsuspecting residents still made use of the area.

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Even though the once-demolished land regrew into a lush forest, it’s still more dangerous than ever. High levels of lead were found in the animals that have been hunted there—and the arsenic levels in the area’s water are 300 times higher than what humans can typically tolerate.

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Still, it’s an improvement compared to what it looked like immediately after the fighting ended. Back then, the trees were almost completely wiped out. It’s hard to believe that the forest was able to grow back considering how the war changed the very topography of the land.

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There are craters in the ground where the fighting occurred. What was once flat land now wears the marks of an epic battle—almost as though it was molded into an entirely new place. Don’t be fooled by the trees; there’s not much viable life in this soil.

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Along with lead, the area’s water contains a good amount of perchlorate, a chemical used in manufacturing rockets and ammunition. In 2012, the area’s water was banned from consumption. In many parts of the red zone, only 1% of the plant and animal life survives.

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For at least 10,000 more years, non-biodegradable lead, zinc, and mercury will continue to contaminate the soil with the remaining shrapnel, and there’s not much that can be done to stop it. In fact, any living creature that attempts to survive there would find themselves suffering a rather unfortunate fate.

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In 1946, the French established a special organization called Department du Deminage; it was committed to clearing out as many weapons from the area as possible. The map below shows the zone’s varying risk levels, the red area being the most dangerous.

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Those brave enough to clear the area are in constant danger of being hurt or killed by the many unseen dangers still lurking in the ground. Gas shells are the most dangerous if they are detonated, as the toxins they release are absorbed and built up in the body. By the time they are detected, it is often too late.

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The surrounding “yellow” and “blue” zones are less dangerous and even repopulated. Even in these areas, however, farmers can accidentally strike explosives with their tractors. They narrowly escape death on a regular basis. Even 90 years after World War I, this battle rages on.

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Close to 900 tons of unexploded ammunition are unearthed each year. They call this constant excavation “the iron harvest.” There are even designated dumping grounds for farmers to leave the ammunition they find to be collected by authorities.

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 Crops from the area are supposed to be closely monitored, but there is some doubt surrounding whether this is actually being done. Because of the sheer amount of damage to the area, cleaning it all up seems like a fight that can’t be won too many people.

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Still, by the start of the 1970s, the Department du Deminage believed that its cleaning efforts were successful. When it thought that the task was complete, it reopened more land and roads to the public. But research reveals just how much of this land is still affected.

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Unfortunately, the Department du Deminage didn’t fully consider the leaks and other consequences of detonating so many chemical bombs. By the time that the area was officially restricted in 2012, hundreds of people and animals had died from undetected munitions.

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Soon after World War I ended, a rush to convert the area into livestock farms resulted in additional chemical treatment of the soil. The French word la verdunisation actually refers to the chlorinated water treatment in 1911 Paris and is derived from the Battle of Verdun.

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In 2012, the French government officially prohibited the public from entering the site after realizing its condition. Since cleanup efforts at the war’s end were futile—and the French economy was in shambles—the area was a complete disaster that would prove to be too challenging for decades to come.

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To this day, many people doubt that the French government and the European Union are doing enough to keep the area safe, which scientists say must be continuously monitored. Sadly, most citizens claim this task is simply not done.

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Those living in the surrounding areas often boast personal collections of artifacts from the war, with some even opening their own small museums or adding their findings to local tourist destinations. Travelers the world over consider Verdun a living relic of history.

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Pozières is another town that was completely destroyed by the fighting, though it’s been rebuilt. A restaurant and café called Le Tommy in Pozières actually repurposed a trench in its rear garden. The trench attracts tourists and is dedicated to the sacrifices of the Allied Forces.

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Still, families in the surrounding areas obviously can’t make use of the quarantined zones, so they have to make do with what they can. Everywhere they look, there are reminders of the devastation that once occurred where they’re living.

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Still, some towns in the area were never rebuilt. Instead, they are considered “ghost villages” and are used as memorials that are dedicated to those who “died for France.” Even some of these are not accessible to the public because the land is so toxic.

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Joseph Hupy, a geography professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire who specializes in military geography, told National Geographic, “The word ‘recover’ is not the right word. [The land] got set off on a different trajectory of development.”

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Hupy says that, although the battle transformed the area, the current landscape is largely a result of human activity after the war. Recovery, in this case, caused more harm than good—especially since the government’s efforts to clean up have proven futile.

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Back in its day, Verdun itself had over 40 forts that kept French borders safe for centuries. The Germans targeted the area during the war because they knew that the French were sentimental about the land—and would dedicate all their resources to protect it.

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German General Erich von Falkenhayn wrote to Kaiser Wilhelm II to say that they would only win by draining the French soldiers’ will to fight. And what better way to accomplish that than by targeting a beloved, beautiful area of their country?

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Verdun was also smack-dab in the middle of the Western Front, and the Germans were able to catch the French by surprise there. General Falkenhayn’s men spent seven weeks before the attack building infrastructure like railways and heavy bunkers to house troops.

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Due to the huge bombardments they faced, French soldiers relied on just one road to supply them at Verdun. It was later dubbed “La Voie Sacrée,” or “The Sacred Road,” because of its importance to the French during the war effort.

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Recent estimates suggest that 976,000 total deaths resulted from the Battle of Verdun, and 1,250,000 people were injured, including civilians and those who have interacted with the land since the battle took place. It is thought that 70% of deaths during the battle were caused by artillery.

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After 10 months of fighting, a total of nine towns in the region were destroyed. So many of the dead were unidentifiable, and 130,000 unknown people, both German and French, were laid to rest at a monument called Douaumont Ossuary.

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As one would imagine, WWII left its own mark behind as well. This man and his wife recently took a backpacking trip through Greenland and came across a very creepy piece of history. 

 Miles away from civilization, in a very remote location of Ikateq, Greenland, was a place known as “Bluie East Two.” During World War II, it served as a United States Air Force airfield. CanadaSpeedoMan and his wife were in awe at what they saw.

Between the years of 1942 and 1947, Bluie East Two was used as a refueling station for planes that were traveling from the United States to Europe during the war. Now, it’s merely a haunting reminder of the past…

Local Inuit people had salvaged as much of the usable material as they could over the years. They would either carry the materials by foot or load them onto small fishing vessels and bring them back to their villages. But there were still plenty of interesting things scattered around to investigate.

Thousands of barrels of fuel were strewn around the land. Most of them were empty, but there were a few that still had fuel. It appeared as though everything was left as it was when it was abandoned many years ago.

An old radio tower was lying on its side among the rubble. There were many of these towers located on the airstrip. The pilots used them to communicate with the air traffic controllers as they were bracing to land on the base.

Here are the remains of one of the bulldozers used to construct Bluie East Two. The treads on the tires needed to be huge in order to navigate the rocky terrain. It took a talented and cautious worker to drive one.

There was a lot of wood scattered about as well. However, every single piece of it had to be brought to the base by boat since no trees grow anywhere near Ikateq. Any driftwood that was there came floating in from Siberia.

Here’s a picture of a soldier crouched in front of the barracks. Large houses were built so troops could spend long periods of time at the base. Some of them would stay there for years, waiting for the war to finally end.

Here is what that same area looks like today. It’s hard to think this was once the residence of so many brave soldiers, and it’s since been reduced to a jagged pile of broken wood and rusted metal. However, their memory lives on.

This is a truck that was presumably used to transport the barrels of fuel to and from the airstrip. Even though it’s rusted out, it’s in remarkably good condition for being over 60 years old, as were most of the things they found.

CanadaSpeedoMan and his wife came across this old furnace that was once used to heat the hangar, too. The airstrip operated all year round, so troops needed a way to combat the frigid Greenland temperatures during the winter months.

This is one of the many pieces of equipment that were used to maintain the airstrip during its operational period. As you can see, troops needed large vehicles capable of carrying heavy goods to and from the base.

These heavy-duty machines below were once used to move rock so soldiers could build barracks on the land. The Greenland terrain was incredibly rugged, and troops often needed to use large pieces of construction equipment to modify the land around them.

This pair of old tires still had snow chains attached to them. The winter months in Greenland were brutal for soldiers, and they needed to make sure they were ready to handle all types of inclement weather.

This was a huge boiler that CanadaSpeedoMan found standing tall among the airstrip’s wreckage. The sheer size of the boiler speaks to how large the hangar must have been. A boiler this size would have produced a lot of heat.

One of the most interesting things CanadaSpeedoMan came across was this old radio transmitter. Seeing pieces of technology from long ago was always fascinating. It’s remarkable to think this rusted piece of metal was once used to communicate with military troops.

There were also thousands of small glass shards covering the area. It seemed as though most of them came from old Coca-Cola bottles. Coke was clearly a popular beverage for the troops who spent their time here.

This is a picture of the entire airstrip now. What looks like a rocky, unkempt runway used to be a pristine location for planes of all sizes to land for a brief period of time so the pilot could rest and their aircraft could be refueled.

Here is a photo that was taken during Bluie East Two’s heyday in World War II. As you can see, a plane is about to take off of the runway and head for Europe. The base saw thousands of planes come and go each year.

Most of the planes that landed at Bluie East Two were American, but it also catered to European troops as well. Not only would planes refuel, but soldiers would discuss strategies with the pilots while they waited to take off again.

Here’s a photo of a worker operating a huge rock mover. The United States brought a lot of enormous construction vehicles over to Greenland to help build the airstrip. Many of those vehicles are still there today.

Even though today the airstrip is full of broken wood, rusted vehicles, and twisted metal, there was once a time when Bluie East Two was an organized and well-run base that served an incredibly important purpose in the war.

One of the most interesting aspects of the base was that it was only accessible by boat for a few months out of the entire year. During the other months, the thick and dangerous Greenland sea ice made it impossible to reach.

Because of its remote location, it would be extremely difficult to transport all of the debris off the land, so it seems as though Bluie East Two will remain a haunting reminder of war for many years to come.