Surf, sand and shrapnel? Relics still scattered across D-Day beaches

Acclaimed photographer Donald Weber has produced a series of stunning microscopic photographs of sand that indeed confirm traces of D-Day shrapnel remain on the Normandy beaches.

Photographer Donald Weber's project War Sand marries art, science

Take a barefoot walk on Normandy's D-Day beaches, and you'll literally feel a bit of history squeezing between your toes.

Acclaimed Canadian photographer Donald Weber was walking the beaches of Normandy, collecting teaspoons of sand for his project War Sand, when he remembered a fantastical tale he'd read as a kid. The plot's thrilling premise: nine British commandoes in 1943 splash ashore on a beach in France after swimming across the English Channel. Their daring mission called on the Allied troops to meet with a group of French resistance fighters.

"That story popped into my head," Weber, a 2014 finalist for the Scotiabank Photography Award, told CBC News in an interview. "And I imagined myself as the 10th commando."

The 1944 Normandy landing, a pivotal turning point in the Second World War also referred to as D-Day, involved the Allied invasion of an 80-km stretch of beach in Normandy. The Canadians, who fought on the beachfront given the codename "Juno", suffered 359 deaths on D-Day.

In all, last May and June Weber walked the five beaches of the D-Day Normandy landings. His method was meticulous. As the tides receded, he trekked out across deserted, windswept beaches and gathered packets of sand from noon until the early evening.

Weber wanted to determine if microscopic remnants of steel shrapnel from the Second World War could be found in the sand — a theory posited in an earlier separate study that focused solely on Omaha Beach. The result? A series of stunning microscopic photographs of sand that indeed confirm traces of D-Day shrapnel remain on the Normandy beaches.

"I like the idea that through science, art can reveal itself," Weber said. "And through art, science can reveal itself."

Rigorous sleuthing

To conduct the scientific analysis, Weber teamed up with Kevin Robbie, a Queen's University physics professor.

The iron remnants shown in this photograph were generated from the explosions of munitions during the D-Day battle. (Donald Weber)

"I was a bit dubious at first, but after Don shipped some sands to me in Kingston and doing some optical and electrical microscopy we were able to find that there definitely were steel remnants in the sand," Robbie said.

Robbie first had to determine if the steel remnants were spherical particles produced from exploding artillery shells or if they derived from exploding meteorites in the upper atmosphere.

A high-strength magnet drew the shrapnel pieces out of the sand packets and Robbie then bombarded the sample with an electron beam to examine the energy of the resulting x-rays. Robbie found several different types of steel, including hardened manganese, which likely derived from artillery. He adds the shrapnel particles could remain in the sand for centuries.

In future analyses, it may be possible to determine whether particular steel fragments originated from Allied or Axis weaponry, given that all iron contains a signature of trace elements unique to its origin.

Science into art

Using a palette that closely resembled the physical landscape of the Normandy beaches, Robbie and Weber created a colour code — selecting blue for iron, yellow for silicon oxide and green for sodium chloride for their photographs of the sand.

The process was time-intensive, with each photograph taking more than eight hours to produce. The granules of sand each measured about 0.1 mm in size.

One sand sample revealed the presence of a diatom, a casing that algae produce in the ocean. (Donald Weber and Kevin Robbie)

One photograph Robbie and Weber produced contains an object that resembles a man-made shell casing. In actual fact, the picture is a magnification of a diatom shell, a silicone-oxide casing that algae build around themselves in the ocean. Diatoms in the ocean feed off the iron. Weaponry used seven decades ago is now sustaining the ocean, observed Weber.

"Diatoms need iron for their metabolism," said Robbie. "And so ultimately this remnant from this battle that killed many people is providing nutrients to a form of life decades and decades later."

'A delicious onion'

Weber's photography isn't limited to microscopic views of the beaches. He returned to Normandy a second time in October 2013 to capture photographs of the sweeping vistas.

History sacrifices itself for another layer of history- Donald Weber, photographer

The D-Day beachfronts have been depicted endlessly in art and film — ships packed with battle-ready soldiers advancing to the shore. Notably, Weber's photos are mostly devoid of people.

"One of my driving goals with storytelling is to reveal a new shade of something they already knew," he said, describing the macro and the micro views of the beach as layers in a "delicious onion."

"This has been the common thread in my work. We're only a century old, in that every century we repeat ourselves - just in different guises. History sacrifices itself for another layer of history."

To capture the beaches from a different perspective, Weber plans to return to Normandy with a drone to take pictures that capture the landscape from a higher and wider point of view.

Surprising details sometimes reveal themselves, Weber says, noting that he hopes that the next batch of photos will explore how military technology imposes itself in the public realm.

Weber returned to Normandy in October to capture landscape photographs of the beaches of Normandy, including this photo of Gold Beach. (Donald Weber)

Eventually, Weber plans to release the War Sand photographs — covering all five beaches, the landscape portraits and the drone shots — in a book.

"[The photos] go from a cosmological perspective to an absolute, elemental connection," he said.

Robbie similarly notes the photos allow the viewer to inspect the intersection between past and present, visible and hidden.

"You wouldn't think that by standing on the beach or looking at the images … that there would be such strong evidence of this war that happened decades and decades ago," said Robbie. "It's really exciting to me that that is still there.

"History never goes away. There's always a trace here or a remnant there."