Two die in munitions explosion in Ypres


Two workers died yesterday in Ypres when an munition from the First World War exploded on a construction site

Construction workers tried to move shell

Two workers were killed in an accident in Ypres, West Flanders, yesterday, when a shell dating back to the First World War exploded. Two other men were injured in the blast, one of them seriously.

The shell had been uncovered days before during building works. When the workers tried to remove it from the ground yesterday, it exploded. One man was killed instantly; the other died later in hospital. Police and fire services closed off the site, and the army’s bomb disposal unit Dovo attended the scene. They removed a second missile and carried out a sweep of the area for further munitions, but nothing was found.

It is not yet clear why the workers tried to remove the shell themselves instead of calling in Dovo or the local police. The uncovering of First World War munitions is not a rare event in the area, where most of the fighting of the war was concentrated.

Dovo handles some ten tonnes of “problem munitions” in the Westhoek every year. In recent weeks, Dovo has had to deal with a massive cache of bombs and shells collected and stockpiled by three farmers in the area, as well as removing more than 500 shells – with more to come – that turned up when a farmer in Passendale ploughed a pasture for the first time.

There is a fund for compensation of civilian victims of First World War munitions, but the prosecutor’s office in Ypres said that none of the victims of yesterday’s explosion qualify, as they are not of Belgian nationality. One of the men who died is of Turkish origin, and the other is a Bulgarian national not registered in Belgium. The two injured workers also have Turkish nationality.

About 350 people have died as a result of unexploded munitions since the end of the Great War in 1918. 

In related news, about 100 cardboard boxes of documents dating back as far as 1914 were handed over yesterday in Brussels by the State Archives to the German government, represented by ambassador HE Dr Eckhart Cuntz. The documents had been stored in the Germany embassy in Brussels and consulates in Antwerp and Liege until 1944, when they were abandoned as the Germans retreated. The collection includes books, propaganda, photographs and official orders. The documents will be digitised by the German foreign affairs ministry and a copy made available to the State Archive in Brussels.

Photo by Kurt Desplenter/BELGA