The Last Inhabitant of a Dead Village

By Durham University

Guillaume is a forest ranger in a very unusual place. He oversees the forests planted over the French No Man's Land of WWI. A century after the war, these are rich environmental havens that still bear the scars of violence. Walk into the forest with him to observe up close some of this history. 

Forestry Ranger Guillaume (July 2018) by Elliot GravesDurham University

"My name is Guillaume Rouard and I work for the French Forest Agency in Verdun. I've worked here for 20 years. I am originally from south of France."

Guillaume Showing New Saplings (July 2018) by Elliot GravesDurham University

"We are next to the village of Louvemont destroyed in the First World War. It is one of several villages that were forced to evacuate when the war started. Most were never allowed to come back."

WWI shells resting against a tree in Verdun (September 2015) by Elliot GravesDurham University

"This is a beautiful region. But the scars of what happened here more than 100 years ago are still visible. Especially for me, as someone who works here every day, the contract between nature and war is really striking."

Verdun Battlefields by Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

"When the war ended there was nothing left, only craters from the constant bombing and shelling. Now everything is covered in forest, but this is artificial. It was all planted after the war to cover the damage that was done to the land during the years of heavy fighting that took place here.

It is funny to think of it that way, but this is artificial nature."

Rare Frog Wildlife, Zone Rouge (July 2018) by Elliot GravesDurham University

"These toads have gone extinct in several European countries, but they are thriving here. They like to live in shallow puddles inside the craters left by the bombs.

Because most of the visitors focus on the big monuments, the rest of the forest remains largely undisturbed, allowing wildlife to thrive."

Visable Munitions Of WW1 (July 2018) by Elliot GravesDurham University

"We find 10 tons of metal every year- grenades, shrapnel, bullet casings. Then we call the army to detonate the unexploded shells and bombs.

Thousands of shrapnel were placed inside each bomb. We think there are 1-2 tons of metal in each hectare of land. You can’t see that where there is vegetation, but the ground is full of metal.

It will take 200-300 years to remove all the metal, but I don't think they will ever finish removing everything. There are also 80,000 soldiers who were never recovered from the killing fields. When we do forestry work, we sometimes recover wedding rings that belonged to soldiers killed here. That's hard."

Verdun Battlefields by Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

"This was my first job. My grandfather was here during the First World War. So it’s difficult for me to think about what he went through.

He was a “trench cleaner”- after the battle he went through the trenches to kill the remaining wounded German soldiers.

When he came home he was mad. The soldiers fought the nightmares…they lived like rats. Now we can’t understand how they lived, their demons."

Guillaume's Forestry Patrol 4X4 (July 2018) by Elliot GravesDurham University

"It is strange being a forest ranger here, in the destroyed villages that were covered in trees. All the original inhabitants have either died or moved out, but I come here every day. I think that I am the last inhabitant of these places."

Credits: Story

Photographer: Elliot Graves

Producers: Noam Leshem and Alasdair Pinkerton

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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