Plans to build a giant wind farm in a French field where vast numbers of dead Australians are thought to lie after the World War I battle of Bullecourt have outraged the soldiers’ descendants, including former Queensland premier Campbell Newman.
The six turbines are to be installed directly where fierce fighting in two battles in April and May 1917 led to more than 10,000 Australian casualties – one of them Mr Newman’s great-uncle, Second Lieutenant Leslie Mullett.
“It was his first battle ever; he was killed in action either in a trench or on the barbed wire, with the Germans throwing down artillery and machinegunning them,” Mr Newman said.
“He was listed as missing in action but they never found him. There were descriptions later of horrific scenes of bodies hanging up on the barbed wire.”
Mr Newman described the plans by French windpower generator Maia Eolis to build its facility as “an outrage gone too far – it’s the same as someone carving a trench through the Lone Pine cemetery and putting up a wind farm”.
According to French newspaper La Voix Du Nord, many locals have a similar view. It quotes Riencourt-les-Cagnicourt Mayor Gerard Crutel as saying: “This project, I do not want it … this place is almost a graveyard.”
Public hearings on the matter began this week and some opponents are asking why the project cannot be moved. “If the turbines are pushed back further … I would have to change my mind,” Mr Crutel reportedly said.
Mr Newman said that as recently as April, when he attended the 100th anniversary commemoration of the battle, human remains had been discovered and farmland disturbed so they could be properly retrieved.
“The war historian C.E.W. Bean writes of Bullecourt as a pivotal debacle which caused Australians to say ‘no more will we allow the British to control our actions’,” Mr Newman said.
It was to be the first time an Australian infantry attack used the protection of military tanks, but the tanks were ineffective and, because the attack was supposed to be a surprise, there was no covering artillery bombardment.
It has been estimated the remains of between 3000 and 4000 Australian, British and German soldiers were never recovered.
Fighting in the 14th Battalion alongside Mullett was Albert Jacka, the first Australian to receive the Victoria Cross in World War I, for his actions at Gallipoli. Jacka was later decorated twice for bravery on the Western Front.
Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson called for the wind-farm plans to be reconsidered but conceded there may be little Australia could do.
“Bullecourt is one of the most significant sites of Australian sacrifice and the French government would do well to reconsider. “In the end, it is a matter for government.”
That is unlikely to be enough for Mr Newman. “It’s an untouched battlefield; it’s a war grave. There’s even stories of mass graves, of men being press ganged by Germans … into throwing bodies into shell holes for burial.”