Almost a century after the gunfire ceased on the Western Front, the people of France and Belgium have remained wholehearted in honouring the memories of the “Australian men who came from the bottom of the world to fight and who died here”, as a teacher at L’Ecole Victoria (the Victoria School) in the village of Villers-Bretonneux put it last year. It is no surprise, then, that many citizens of Bullecourt in northern France are as incensed as Australians by the prospect of giant wind turbines defacing the field, once a hellscape of barbed wire and trenches, where 10,000 Australians were killed or wounded during two fierce battles in April and May 1917.
Among the dead was Lieutenant Leslie Mullett, seeing action for the first time. His great-nephew, former soldier and Queensland premier Campbell Newman, says the plans by French power generator Maia Eolis to build six wind turbines on the site is “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”.
As Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson says, Bullecourt is one of the most significant sites of Australian sacrifice and the French government would do well to reconsider. In the end, as Dr Nelson says, it is “a matter for government”, which is why Veterans Affairs Minister Dan Tehan was right yesterday to enlist the support of his French counterpart, Genevieve Darrieussecq, to take a strong stand against the project being built in an area where the remains of 3000 to 4000 Australian, British and German soldiers were never recovered. Australia’s action will be an important test of our national commitment to “Lest We Forget”.