They are the weapons of long-lasting cruelty, often maiming and killing years, even decades, after a conflict has ended. Landmines may not carry the same kind of immediate destructive power that a bomb or a missile comes with, but their dark legacy has made them some of the most damaging and controversial forms of weapons we’ve ever created.
Statistics surrounding landmines are nothing short of horrendous and certainly paint a murky picture of what humans are capable of. There are an estimated 110 million landmines still active in the ground around the world today, with roughly the same number either waiting to be planted or destroyed. They kill or maim between 15,000 and 20,000 people each year, the majority of which are classed as non-combatants. Many of those killed or injured by landmines are children and the last few decades has seen a huge surge in education around the world over the dangers of landmines and other unexploded ordnance.
Yet with armies and insurgencies still laying mines around the world, it can be easy to feel like the battle against landmines is being lost. While numbers are always in flux, until fairly recently an estimated 100,000 mines were removed each year – a truly honourable attempt no doubt – but with anywhere up to 2 million planted every year, the number lying in wait has been growing for years.
Before we look at some of the earliest forms of landmines, let’s start with what exactly mines are and what kind of variations exist. Landmines are explosive devices typically buried just below the surface or concealed that can be triggered in various ways, either by pressure placed down on them from a foot or vehicle and sometimes by tripwires or other booby trap methods. The explosion itself is not only what you need to worry about, as shrapnel and metallic objects sometimes placed inside can be just as deadly.
So why do we put these awful devices in the ground? Well, simply, they are very good at what they do, either as a form of defence or as a way of channelling soldiers into a specific area. We’ll talk a little later about demining, but even today with our plethora of modern technology, landmine removal is an arduous process that can severely slow down even the strongest of land armies. Over the years, the most heavily mined areas have often been the border areas between nations at war, with the Egypt-Israel border and the South Korea-North Korea divide two places where you really shouldn’t be straying too far from the designated paths. Not that you can, or would want to amble leisurely around the DMZ that cuts across the Korean Peninsula, but I’m sure you get the point.
Broadly speaking there are two main categories of landmines, anti-tank and anti-personnel. Anti-tank mines, as I’m sure you can gather, are principally designed to damage tanks or other vehicles. They are usually buried fairly deeply and are often larger and require at least 100 kilograms (220 lb) of force to trigger them.
Anti-personnel mines on the other hand are designed to kill or injure people and are usually much smaller and placed just below the surface, between 10 and 15 cm (3.9 – 5.9 inches), where even the faintest of footsteps can set them off.
These kinds of mines are rarely laid to target civilians specifically with the majority having been placed during conflicts, either war between nations, or involving insurgencies. And while the cost to military personnel during wars tends to be very high, it is often civilians living in the area that pay the highest price long after the fighting has ceased.
We tend to think of landmines as a purely modern horror, but in one way or the other, their story begins much further back. Modern landmines of course use explosives but for thousands of years, people have experimented with various forms of victim-operated traps that sought to do exactly the same thing – kill whoever stood on them.
The earliest forms of what we might loosely call landmines came from those all-conquering Romans who concealed wooden spikes in pits known as Illias. These pits were carefully concealed and anybody unfortunate enough to stand on them would spend the final hours or minutes of their lives in unspeakable agony.
The Romans took it up a notch with the caltrop, a weapon 12–15 cm (4.7 – 5.9 inches) across with four sharp spikes that a Roman soldier could throw into the path of an oncoming enemy. Whichever side the caltrop landed, it would have a vicious spike pointing straight up and needless to say, if you ever stood on one, your 100 metre days would be well behind you. The Chinese and Japanese later used similar weapons and the Roman caltrop still forms the basis of the spike traps that are sometimes laid in front of cars to puncture their tyres.
While gunpowder was first invented sometime in the 9th Century, it took several centuries until it was being used in landmines, mainly because gunpowder is hygroscopic meaning it attracts and holds water. And when it comes to gunpowder, water is a big no-no.
The Huolongjing, a 14th-century military treatise that describes a variety of weapons, gives an account of one of the earliest known landmines to use gunpowder. It involved a 2.7 metre (9 ft) long piece of bamboo that had been waterproofed by wrapping it in cowhide and covering it with oil. Inside it was filled with compressed gunpowder and lead or iron pellets, then sealed with wax and placed outside, often over a trench. The full details of how it worked are far from clear but involved a small pin that, when dislodged, would set off a chain of events that would eventually lead to a set of fuses being lit and a small explosion tearing through whatever, or whoever, had disturbed it.
As the centuries passed, their use began to spread around the world but they remained unreliable at best and failed to capture the imagination until the invention of the safety fuse in the early 19th Century and later the percussion cap. They were used during the Russo-Turkish War of 1828 to 1829, the Crimean War, between 1853 and 1856 and during the American Civil War, where, despite only killing a few hundred men, they represented a new type of war that greatly affected morale. Both sides were adamant over the cruelty that these landmines brought to the conflict, yet both used them fairly indiscriminately.
During the 19th Century, several technological advancements gradually led to the evolution of the landmine. Certainly the most important came in 1863 when the German chemical industry developed trinitrotoluene (TNT), an explosive that could be used in artillery shells but was also found to be an excellent substance for landmines because of its lightweight, stability, protection against the damp and relatively cheap cost of production.
By the early 20th Century, landmines had been used in wars or rebellions around the world for some time, but the First World War saw a notable increase – though probably a whole lot less than you’d imagine. When we think about trench warfare we might assume that No Man’s Land was filled with landmines, but that wasn’t really the case. Barbwire and machine guns provided a much easier and more robust defence than sending some poor souls out to lay landmines.
When Britain began experimenting with tanks from 1916 onwards, the Germans met this new form of warfare with improvised anti-tank mines and quickly minefields became much more common than in the early years of the war.
If World War I had seen a slow but steady increase in the use of landmines, the second major conflict of the 20th Century saw their use expand exponentially. It’s generally thought that tens of millions of mines were laid during World War II, particularly in North Africa and parts of Eastern Europe. Although, an interesting fact, the first nation to actually lay mines during the war was none other than Finland who did so during their valiant attempt at holding back the Red Army during the Winter War.
The Soviets learnt a painful lesson, but one which took plenty from. When the German invaded the USSR, Soviet defenders laid a simply staggering amount of mines to slow the German advance. It’s thought that around 67 million mines were manufactured in the Soviet Union during the war, and one million of them were reportedly laid around the city of Kursk in eight belts of gradually increasing diameters.
The Cold War and Modern Landmines
Like just about every area of military hardware, the Cold War saw a huge leap forward for landmine technology and it was during this period that mines began to take on a far deadlier and more indiscriminate approach.
The No 7 Mk 1 Dingbat mine was the world’s first scatterable mine, though having failed to find a suitable way of doing it mechanically, most were laid by hand. During the Korean War, the U.S developed a series of new mines, most notably the M24, a mine that was placed off to the side of the road but was triggered by a tripwire that would then fire a rocket towards the road, the Claymore, a directional fragmentation mine that fires out steel balls in a 60-degree arc at a lethal speed of 1,200 metres (3,937 ft) per second, and a pressure-operated mine, the M14, known as the toe-popper – and I think you can probably guess why.
The 1950s also saw the introduction of wide-area anti-personnel mines (WAAPMs) that could be dropped by an aircraft and would then discharge tripwires when they hit the ground, with each dispenser holding anywhere up to 540 separate mines. The largest of these was known as a Gravel Mine and around 37 million of them were produced between 1968 and 1969, many of which were pushed out over Vietnam with little to no regard of who was below.
The second half of the 20th Century saw the production and laying of landmines reach unimaginable levels. Civil wars and independence movements across Africa saw landmines installed in many countries across the continent, with Angola, Sudan and Somalia leading the way in terms of numbers. In South America, Colombia’s multi-decade battle with FARC and later the drug cartels led to hundreds of thousands of mines laid in the country and neighbouring nations.
Iraq has now become one of the most heavily mined countries on earth, following the Iraq-Iran War, two Gulf Wars and the ISIS insurgency, but there are numerous contenders to this awful crown. Egypt is generally considered to be the most heavily mined country on the planet with a staggering 23 million mines, most of which were laid in the east of the country near the border with Israel.
Afghanistan, Cambodia, Iran, Rwanda and Bosnia and Herzegovina all have horrifyingly high numbers of landmines, but the painful truth is that there are thought to be 78 countries in the world today still contaminated with mines of some kind.
There can be few professions quite as terrifying and absurdly dangerous as demining. On average one deminer is killed and two injured for every 5000 successfully removed mines around the world, while the cost of removal is huge in comparison to the cost of the mine itself. A cheap mine can be bought or constructed for anywhere between $3 and $75, while the cost of removing it is between $300 and $1000.
The work of demining is a painfully arduous process but one that has seen plenty of change over the last century. Yet it still often involves one person, or a small team, placing themselves in the face of serious potential danger day in and day out.
Demining in the military is common practice with combat engineers often called in to clear a route for tanks or personnel to pass through minefields. During World War II, this was often done by simply prodding the ground slowly with a pointed stick or bayonet, though the war did also see some of the earliest metal detectors to be used for mine clearance. And for the sickest, most twisted combatants during the Second World War, they often used local civilians to clear minefields by forcing them to walk through it.
World War II also saw dogs being used for the first time and they have since gone on to become one of the more reliable methods for searching out mines. Dogs are up to a million times more sensitive to chemicals than humans are and can sniff out TNT, monofilament lines used in tripwires, and metallic wire used in booby traps and mines. But at $10,000 per animal, plus up to six months of training and acclimatization, they’re not exactly cheap and quickly available.
But dogs are not the only animal that is trained for demining. One Belgium charity uses rats to demine in Tanzania, while in Sri Lanka, they’ve been experimenting with Mongeese. However, by far the most surprising animal recruit to the landmine cause is the humble bumblebee, who, through what is known as Hymenoptera training, can be taught to hunt out substances such as explosive materials, illegal drugs, as well as some human and plant diseases
Mechanical demining is now probably the most effective and efficient method and is often used in humanitarian situations. This typically involves a large military vehicle that has had its armour heavily reinforced and comes with tillers, flails or rollers, which essentially churns up the earth ahead of it and detonates any mines that might be in the way.
Now that’s where we are currently, but there are numerous new methods on the horizon. Ground-penetrating radar, Infrared and hyperspectral scanning and electrical impedance tomography, which maps out the electrical conductivity of the ground, are just some of the detection methods under development. And if we ever have any hope of removing landmines from around the world, we’re almost certainly going to need better technology.
Manufacturing and International Treaties
In the mid to late 1990s, global awareness over landmines was rising and high-profile attempts were made to finally ban their use. In 1997, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, as known as the Ottawa Treaty, was signed by 40 states, but has since grown to 164 states that have either ratified or acceded to the treaty.
This was undoubtedly great news, but when you see who hasn’t signed the treaty, things don’t quite look as good. The U.S, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and many more have all so far failed to sign up to the treaty. Now, make what you will about that, but for whatever reason, be it financial or military means, some of the most powerful governments in the world, and a huge slice of the world’s population do not fall under the treaty. And even the treaty itself is not quite as watertight as you’d think and doesn’t cover anti-tank mines, cluster bombs or claymore-type mines.
We’re not exactly sure who is currently still making landmines and in what numbers. In 2018, Landmine Monitor identified 11 countries as producers of anti-personnel mines, including China, Cuba, India, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam. Now, it is important to highlight that this doesn’t necessarily mean they are all actively producing landmines right now, but because of their absence from the treaty they are essentially labelled as ‘maybes’.
A Long Legacy
To put the global landmine problem into perspective, if landmine clearance continues at a steady rate and we don’t see any enormous additions, it would take the world between 500 and 1200 years to clear the planet of all of every landmine still in existence and cost between $50 billion and $100 billion.
It’s clear that this is going to take an extraordinarily long time to complete and yet the danger, pain and even death caused by landmines remain a dark shadow for many areas of the world. Most people who step on a landmine don’t die, but the loss of a limb, or two, is incredibly common. In the United States, the rate of amputation is 1 for every 22,000 people, while in Angola, where a brutal 27-year civil war saw millions of landmines laid, it is 30 for every 10,000.
Landmines not only act as a shocking danger to human life, but their mere presence means that millions of sq miles around the world cannot be used by farmers, often desperately in need of land. It’s thought that both Cambodia and Afghanistan could effectively double agricultural production if all their land mines were removed.
When you think about the estimated cost of clearing all of the landmines around the world, perhaps $100 billion at its most expensive, it doesn’t seem like much when compared to what developed nations plough into their military budgets every year. Yet, while some impressive progress has been made in the last twenty-five years, many are still dragging their feet. Whether this is for financial, security or just plain non-conformity reasons, it’s difficult to tell. But what is clear, is that landmines will continue to present an awful danger for some of the poorest in the world until there is a more coordinated response.
Landmines are not something we ever need to think about when walking through Britain’s sedate rolling hills or America’s dramatic wilderness, but for those living in rural communities in Angola, Cambodia, Egypt, Afghanistan and Colombia a walk through the forest can take on an entirely different proposition. Where every step can lead to a discrete click and the end of life as you know it.