The Australian government has been asked to intervene to stop wind turbines being built on a former World War I battlefield in northern France, where 10,000 Australians became casualties of the Great War.
Six wind turbines have been proposed for the former Bullecourt battlefield, including two on the German trench lines where intense fighting took place during two battles in 1917.
Now farming land abutting the French towns of Bullecourt and Riencourt, the flat clay soil was the site of a flashpoint between the Germans attempting to move south and the Australians pushing north in their attempt to break through the Hindenburg Line.
Peter Norton, a battlefield guide of seven years, has written to Veterans’ Affairs Minister Michael Ronaldson asking for the government to “protest and prevent the desecration” of the former battlefield.
Mr Norton argues that, while the former battlefield has long been worked for farming, the ploughs used did not go further than 300 millimetres deep. They did not disturb graves because the German army had a minimum grave depth of 600 millimetres. It meant many remains of Australian and German soldiers had been left untouched for almost a century. They were now at risk, he said.
“Now we are talking heavy engineering, not just a farmer’s plough,” he said.
Mr Norton said the foundations for each of the six proposed turbines would go deep underground. Existing farmers’ tracks would need to be widened to support heavy haulage equipment and the cable runs connecting the turbines underground would involve digging trenches more than a metre underground.
Of greatest concern, he said, were turbines number one and two. They are planned for one of the most sensitive parts of the battlefield, where there was heavy fighting in April and May 1917.
“I’m in no doubt that there are quite a number of Australian dead still lying in and around turbine number one…it was a hot spot of the battlefield,” he said.
At the end of the second battle in May 1917, the Australians did what no one else had managed to do, breaking and holding the Hindenburg Line.
Breaking the German defences and capturing the village of Bullecourt, while a significant strategic advantage, came at a cost. The two battles resulted in 10,000 Australian casualties.
Among them was Mr Norton’s great uncle, Alfred William King. Private King, from Port Melbourne, was killed on May 12 when a shell landed near the foxhole he was sheltering in with five others. All were killed and buried nearby, but the location was lost in the chaos of war. The grave was re-located in 1955, and Private King and Charles Edgar Strachan from Albert Park were the only ones identified.
Mr Norton said his concerns were echoed by French locals, particularly in Riencourt, 2.5 kilometres east of Bullecourt, where they had formed a lobby group to stop the turbines being built.
“There is a hardcore number of locals who say we must never forget … that the Australians must never be forgotten,” he said.
The wind turbine project proposed by French group Maia Eolis is now before the local government, which will decide if it can go ahead.
A spokesman for the group said the proposed wind farm was part of a French government commitment for 23% of energy to be renewable by 2020, and that the Riencourt area had been defined as favourable for windfarms. He said the project was at feasibility stage, and there were ongoing landscape, heritage, ecological and acoustic studies.
“We know the past of this territory and we will be very vigilant on this issue. Thus, the necessary precautions will be taken to ensure an implantation respectful of the site of Bullecourt,” the spokesman said.
A spokesman for Veterans’ Affairs Minister Michael Ronaldson said the government was keen for the project to be handled appropriately.
He noted French authorities had well established protocols to ensureany disturbed remains were recovered and reinterred within a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery.
The response failed to impress Mr Norton.
“I’ve called on the Australian government to be active and what they’ve come back and said is that we’re going to stand by and watch. I’m not happy about that. I am extremely concerned.”
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