Some 10,000 Australians were killed or wounded in 1917 war
Sydney: Canberra on Tuesday welcomed as “very touching” the scrapping of a planned French wind farm on the site of a First World War battlefield where thousands of Australian soldiers died.
French energy company Engie Green had planned to erect two turbines on the grounds of the former Bullecourt killing fields in northern France, where some 10,000 Australians were killed or wounded in 1917.
Many bodies were never found, and the planned site for the wind farm is a natural burial ground near the Bullecourt memorial that is visited regularly by Australian families.
“This is wonderful news for every Australian and especially those with a family connection to the Battle of Bullecourt,” Veterans’ Affairs Minister Dan Tehan said in a statement.
“The Engie group has listened to the concerns of the Australian people and they have acted with empathy by cancelling this project.”
Tehan told Sky News he was also grateful for the efforts of the French government, saying it showed “how the French still, 100 years on, take so importantly what Australians were prepared to do for them”.
“From the local mayor right through to the minister for veterans’ affairs, they all referred to the diggers and the legacy of the diggers ... it’s very touching for all Australians.”
Diggers is Australian military slang for the nation’s wartime soldiers, and reflects the digging that troops on the front line did to create trenches.
Australian pensioner Maria Cameron from Port Fairy, a friend of Tehan, was lobbying local officials when AFP visited the site last week in the Pas-de-Calais region, near the border with Belgium.
“It’s barbaric. This is our sacred ground,” the 70-year-old said of Engie’s plans as she met with the local mayor and French campaigners during her trip.
Her great-uncle Simon Fraser lost his life in the fighting and has been immortalised in a sculpture in Canberra which commemorates soldiers who helped wounded Aussies off the battlefield at nearby Fromelles in 1916.
Other Australians like 45-year-old Rick Rowbottom, whose great-aunt’s fiance died defending Bullecourt, were equally outraged as they paid their respects in the region where local farmers grow potatoes, wheat and beets nowadays.
“Haven’t these soldiers suffered enough?” Rowbottom, a World War I buff who was visiting the battlefields for the first time, told AFP. “Even if it has been 100 years, can’t they just rest in peace?”
Engie said the project was axed as the company was “sensitive to the emotion aroused in Australia and anxious to alleviate the fears” of everyone involved in preserving the memory of the fallen.
“The recent reactions have highlighted the symbolic nature and sacredness of the site,” the company said in a statement to AFP.
“Respectful of the memory of Australian soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice on French soil during the First World War, Engie has taken the decision to cancel this project,” it said.
Local mayor, Gerard Crutel, had warned that building the foundations for the turbines risked disturbing bodies which were often buried where they fell during the slaughter of the World War I.
“They’re sure to find cadavers,” he said.
Even now human remains and tonnes of unexploded ordnance area still being discovered by local farmers, some of whom refuse to dig deep into the soil out of respect for the fallen.
A total of 2,249 Australian, 1,875 British soldiers and an unknown number of Germans died in two battles at Bullecourt in April and May 1917, among the last of the war on the Western Front, according to French journalist Gilles Durand.
His just published book, “Bullecourt 1917, The Remembrance of Soldiers Past”, chronicles strategic blunders, command disagreements and tank shortages that turned the operation into a fiasco.
The family of one of the victims, Valentine Starkey, who died aged 23 in the second battle of Bullecourt, said it was “heart-warming” that a small group of Australians and French were successful in lobbying against the wind farm.
“They’ve had petitions, even the mayor of the local area ... was against this,” Ashley Starkey, the great-great nephew of Valentine, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Tuesday of the support from French locals.
He said some Bullecourt residents had already been campaigning against the wind farm proposal for at least a year on behalf of the soldiers’ families.
“They’re not against wind farms, and neither am I, they just didn’t want them on this specific battlefield,” he added.