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Harvest of war yields `soldiers of peace'

90 years after the World War I Battle of Passchendaele, one history buff is turning shells unearthed by farmers into mementos.

July 15, 2007|Constant Brand | Associated Press

YPRES, BELGIUM — The summer plowing season in Flanders Fields is a good time for Ivan Sinnaeve.

Known as "Shrapnel Charlie," he keeps alive memories of one of history's bloodiest battles by melting down the World War I shells harvested by farmers and transforming them into toy soldiers that he calls "soldiers of peace."

The 54-year-old Belgian history buff has a huge following among war pilgrims visiting Flanders Fields, the battleground of 1914-1918.

Sinnaeve, a retired carpenter, is busier than usual this year, the 90th anniversary of the phase of fighting called the Battle of Passchendaele, which saw some of the war's worst trench warfare and its first use of mustard gas.

Half a million Britons, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and Germans were killed or wounded while fighting among villages and farms over five miles of muddy Belgian terrain. Drawn out over five months in 1917, Passchendaele became a symbol of senseless killing. The official anniversary was Thursday.

"I can't make them quick enough," said Sinnaeve, as he showed off some of the 250 shiny lead bagpipers he produced for the anniversary.

He was commissioned by local and Scottish organizers to make the 6-inch-tall Scottish Black Watch Regiment figurines from shells found in fields where the regiment fought.

He said he always asked the farmers where they found the metal they brought to him, "so I know which regiments were involved." He thinks some of the iron may be from the shells fired at the regiments he is now commemorating as "soldiers of peace."

The proceeds of the sales are helping to pay for a new memorial for all the Scottish regiments in Britain and its empire that were mobilized for World War I. The memorial is to be unveiled later this year.

Few battlefields in the world still yield so many bombs, guns and bones -- 200 tons a year around Ypres (Ieper in Dutch).

"You never know what my husband brings home; you can bet it's not a bunch of flowers," farmer Charlotte Cardoen-Descamps says, chuckling as she shows a fresh crop of shells, gas shells, grenades, and an unexploded basketball-size aerial bomb her husband, Dirk, plowed up.

Farmers have to use extra care, because some shells still leak toxic gases. But explosions are rare because the farmers have become experienced at handling the iron harvest.

"We got 17 pieces this plowing season, but we can expect even more later this year," Cardoen-Descamps said. The ammunition is neatly stacked around the farmyard, ready to be collected by bomb-disposal experts.

"The nasty shells for us are the gas shells, of course, because we can't identify those anymore," she said. "The color code which gave away the content has rusted away, so if we shake it gently and we hear something slushing around -- well, be careful."

The couple run a bed-and-breakfast where they display helmets, barbed wire, tools and a well-preserved machine gun.

In Sinnaeve's cramped town house, the living room, dining room and kitchen are littered with model soldiers, molds and tiny paint cans.

He has been making his models for 14 years, and says he earns no profit. He's happy just to know that he has "soldiers all over the world."

He got his nickname, Shrapnel Charlie, from a Canadian visitor who couldn't pronounce his surname.

He makes nearly 2,000 soldiers a year, German and Allied, and is almost halfway to his goal of 55,000 -- the number of missing on the famous Menen Gate memorial in Ypres.

Piet Chielens, head of the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, said the region was "like the laboratory of war."

"It was all-out war, for the first time in its most absurd form," he said. "There was no real reason for doing this, and there was no real strategy."

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