'Anything' could have set off artillery shell left on London driveway: Western prof

A Western history professor says a WWI-era artillery shell discovered in London, Ont. would have become more unstable over time.

"You could whack it six times and you'd be fine, but the seventh time for whatever reason it would go off."

Someone put this First World War era artillery shell out to the curb with their trash, even though it contained 20 to 30 pounds of live ordnance, according to police. (London Police Service)

Some things, like a fine wine or cheese, get better with age. Others, like the WWI-era artillery shell found on a London driveway last week, don't.

That's according to Western University history professor Jonathan Vance, who said the "witch's brew" of chemicals inside the shell would have become increasingly unstable over time.

"It's the kind of thing where you could whack it six times with a hammer and you'd be fine, but the seventh time for whatever reason it would go off," said Vance. 


It appears from photos that the shell didn't have a fuse on it, which means it would have been fairly safe at the time it was manufactured, Vance said.

But, he said, things change.

"Someone who brought a shell home in 1916 because they knew without a fuse it wouldn't go off; 100 years later it's entirely possible that it might detonate," he said.

Based on the shell's size relative to the garbage bag pictured next to it, Vance said an explosion would've made a 'fairly significant hole' in the property owner's driveway. 

If it happened to be a shrapnel shell, the situation would have been even worse.

"Shards of steel flying around the neighbourhood," said Vance.

On the day the shell was discovered, London police stayed near the scene most of the day to make sure no one disturbed it by accident. They sent the shell to CFB Borden, where it was later destroyed.

Where'd it come from?

Vance said the shell likely came from a military 'public relations' exercise in town. 

"I seem to recall seeing a picture somewhere of an artillery team somewhere downtown, maybe it was near Victoria Park. They got the gun out there for a recruiting drive to try to get people interested, so it probably came from something like that."

Georgiana Stanciu, executive director of the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum, said the shell could also have come from a local factory, such as the Spramotor Company, that transitioned to making ammunition during WWI.

Both Stanciu and Vance agree that it's unlikely the shell made its way back to London from overseas.

"It's hard to imagine this coming home from the Western front, although it's not entirely beyond the realm of possibility," said Vance.

How common is this?

Whatever the shell's provenance, neither of the two experts was very surprised to see it.

Stanciu said her museum gets around two or three inquiries every year from members of the public, who discover pieces of ammunition and want to donate them.

"Some of them are really surprised that we are not in awe because they found it," said Stanciu.

In fact, Stanciu said she isn't in awe—both because it happens all the time, and because safety concerns override any possible excitement.

Stanciu said anyone who discovers a stray piece of ammunition should report it to police.

The Canadian Armed Forces say items like this unexploded artillery shell are found 'almost every day.'

Since the beginning of the year, CAF has responded to 154 requests from police to recover and dispose of military ammunition, said Capitaine Julie Brouillette in an email statement.

In 2017, CAF responded 566 times, Capitaine Brouillette said.

Vance says he's seen stranger things.

"I remember living in Hamilton, and someone was digging up their foundations to reseal their basement walls," he said.

"They dug up a First World War machine gun that somebody had brought home as a souvenir, didn't know what to do with, decided to dig a hole and bury it beside their house."

"These sorts of weird things could be anywhere."