Updated: Jun 6, 2020
Of course digging on wartime fields is an inherently dangerous thing to do and live ordnance litters the fields and forests and needs to be handled with care and by experts.
Relics and Ordnance
Latvian Police and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) are usually on site with us for major expeditions or come out to us if called, but its fair to say on pretty much every occasion live ordnance will be found.
Certain types of shell are far more dangerous than others and EOD will look at each one, where it is, how it is lying and decide whether to recover or destroy on site. We have often been called in to use our detectors to help find ordnance on sites such as school fields or building sites where a controlled recovery or disposal is far safer than a JCB hitting something during construction.
The group also finds many examples of unusual or unique items of dangerous ordnance. When these are collected by EOD and taken away for defusing many of the items will end up with the Latvian Army EOD Training School where examples of items built to kill can be used now to educate and can help save lives.
Relics of course are widely scattered still, although recently more interest in detecting has started to reduce the amount of easily recoverable items. Ask any of our group what is the best find they could make and all will answer ‘something that gives a missing soldier his identity back’, but most relics are not with soldiers or graves.
As explained above the reason we search general areas with a metal detector is that every now and again a relic helmet or rifle can still be with the soldier lying just a few inches under the ground, or a chance find can lead to a mass burial or field cemetery but most times items we find were just discarded and classed simply as useless war junk but other times unusual finds can be made.
Detecting though on hard fought battlefields is tough going. You have to unlearn everything you ever knew from detecting on peaceful fields in the UK countryside. Thousands of pieces of shrapnel litter every field, small Russian PPSH-41 machine gun cartridge cases are everywhere and the joke is there isn’t a single field in Latvia that doesn’t have some… and if there is we are yet to find it!
However, amongst the thousands of pieces of debris interesting things do still lie about. Many items by law have to be handed in to the local authorities, others we loan or donate to museums a few are kept by the group for its education and museum purposes but much goes for scrap being beyond recognition or interest.
Over the past 20 years the group has recovered some 20,000 soldiers, all are now buried in their national cemeteries or returned home to family plots. There are still tens of thousands more to find and across the whole Eastern Front, millions.
How long will it continue for, well for all of us as long as we are physically able too but time is against us as ground conditions eat away at ID tags, and legends and memories are lost and fade away, so at some point in the future only the ghosts will remain.
By Steve Newman and Hans Sogndal-Valeskog