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An unevacuated Gare du Nord │ © WiNG / Wikimedia Commons
An unevacuated Gare du Nord │ © WiNG / Wikimedia Commons
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Why World War Bombs Repeatedly Cause Eurostar Evacuations

Picture of Paul McQueen
Updated: 15 August 2017
A signal failure at Ebbsfleet, water on the tracks near Lille, a strike by French rail workers, or Brits wreaking havoc after a boozy weekend in Paris: all easily understandable, totally unforgivable reasons for your Eurostar delay. An unexploded antique artillery shell in the luggage of a fellow passenger, however, is one frequent cause for hold-ups that requires further inspection.

The most recent case of this chronic pain in Eurostar’s backside occurred on August 13. Half of Gare du Nord, Europe’s busiest train station, had to be evacuated when an old bomb was discovered during routine security checks at border control, resulting in panic and confusion at the 10th arrondissement terminus.

Queues at Gare du Nord │ © Bex Walton / Flickr
Queues at Gare du Nord │ | © Bex Walton / Flickr

Passengers were initially unaware of the cause for the station’s closure, with many taking to social media to complain. The cross-border operator responded to one customer on Twitter, stating: ‘[S]omebody tried to take through a military relic so it’s just being checked and check in should be open very shortly.’

Police notified onlookers that a controlled explosion of the device would take place, which it did shortly after on Sunday evening: a time when the Eurostar gate is especially busy with travelers returning to the UK after a weekend break in the French capital.

Apart from those traveling on the 4:13pm service, most passengers’ journeys weren’t significantly affected. The lack of serious disruption in itself is a sign of how routine these incidents have become in recent years.

Eurostar at Gare du Nord │ © Steve Cadman / Wikimedia Commons
Eurostar at Gare du Nord │ | © Steve Cadman / Wikimedia Commons

In May 2016, hundreds of people were stranded overnight in Paris (admittedly not the worst place to be stranded) after customs officials found a replica bomb and, almost exactly a year before that, Gare du Nord was emptied when a shell from one of the World Wars was found in a passenger’s bag. Only twelve hours prior to this, Lille’s Eurostar station was evacuated when an X-ray machine spotted a disarmed artillery shell.

Bizarrely, neither Eurostar nor France’s internal ministry keep a log of these incidents but a study of social media by the BBC in May 2015 found indications of similar delays, diversions, and evacuations at least twice more that month, twice in April 2015, and once in September 2013, May 2012, and December 2011. Unbelievably, a British couple even tried to take a live artillery shell through security at Gare du Nord in July 2010.

Apparently, interest in these largely defunct and harmless objects spikes following major military anniversaries and the recent centennial of the US entry into World War One on April 6, 2017, fits this trend.

It’s estimated that a billion shells were fired in World War One alone – 30% of which never exploded. So numerous are they beneath the soil of northern France and Belgium, where the Great Wars’ major battles took place, that their unearthing by local farmers plowing their fields has earned the name the ‘iron harvest’.

On average, French bomb disposal teams destroy 467 tons of old ordnance every year. The shells that find their way into the hands of dealers and collectors, however, can fetch between £45 ($70) and £85 ($133) online. Alternatively, you can pick them up relatively cheaply at flea markets in France, where they’re found lying nonchalantly in wicker baskets alongside dolls and other knickknacks. A section of Eurostar’s website also specifically addresses military relics on sale at commemorative World War One sites.

Workers checking 25-pounder artillery shells at the small arms factory of J & F Pool Ltd in Hayle, Cornwall, 1943 │© Ministry of Information official photographer, Smith Jack / Wikimedia Commons
Workers checking 25-pounder artillery shells at the small arms factory of J & F Pool Ltd in Hayle, Cornwall, 1943 │ | © Ministry of Information official photographer, Smith Jack / Wikimedia Commons

As well as signs and members of staff at the Eurostar terminal in Paris warning passengers about military contraband, the company’s Conditions of Carriage also draw attention to the ongoing problem, stating that anyone ‘in possession of any of the prohibited items listed in Appendix 1, in particular (but not limited to) military shells (including war souvenirs & relics)’ will be excluded.

Alarmingly, potentially lethal weapons not covered by Appendix 1 include (but are not limited to) hunting rifles, umbrellas containing a sword blade, cut-throat razors, crossbows, and spears.