France has been criticised over an “outrageous” plan to build a six-turbine wind farm on a First World War battlefield where thousands of British and Australian soldiers were killed.
The proposal by French energy firm Engie Green to develop the turbines near the small farming village of Bullecourt has prompted a barrage of criticism in Australia and led to calls for the federal government to voice its objections directly to French president Emmanuel Macron.
During two battles in April and May 1917 at the village in north-east France, Australia lost more than 10,000 troops as it tried – ultimately unsuccessfully – to break the Hindenburg Line, a shortened front to which Germany had withdrawn.
It marks one of the most significant sites in Australian military history.
Nearly 9,000 British troops were killed, injured or captured. Of the tens of thousands of British, Australian and German soldiers who died there, it is believed the remains of 3,000 to 4,000 were never recovered.
Brendan Nelson, the director of the Australian War Memorial, urged France to reconsider the development, saying it could strain ties between Australia and France.
“I would like to think a sane and sensible government, in this case on the French side, would reflect on the fact that the very important contemporary bilateral relationship not in any way be jeopardised,” Dr Nelson told ABC Radio.
The wind farm site would be situated around 600 metres from a memorial to the dead.
According to Engie Green, the location of the site was chosen to ensure “the impact to landscape and the memorial were minimal”.
“We are in regular contact with the Australian embassy,” it said.
However, one local farmer told 20 Minutes: “At the first stroke of the spade, they’ll come across bodies, that’s for sure. “How many bodies risk being crushed by the bulldozers? It’s sad, at a time of non-stop centenary ceremonies to commemorate the sacrifice of all these soldiers.”
Campbell Newman, a former state Queensland premier whose great-uncle was killed at Bullecourt, said the proposed wind farm was “an outrage gone too far”.
He said human remains were still being found on farmland in the area when he attended the centenary commemorations of the battle in April.
The body of Mr Newman’s great-uncle, Second Lieutenant Leslie Mullett, was never recovered.
“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 machine-gunning them,” Mr Newman told The Australian. “There were descriptions later of horrific scenes of bodies hanging up on the barbed wire.”
Maxime Louage, Engie Green project leader, told la Voix du Nord: “We had lots of feedback linked to the memorial. So we moved the project to the South by several hundred metres. When you enter the site, you won’t see the wind farms contrary to what was initially planned.”
But he warned: “We can’t keep changing the project every ten days and it’s difficult to keep everyone happy.”
Dan Tehan, Australia’s veterans’ affairs minister, said he would contact his French counterpart to discuss the wind farm.
He added: “The French people, like the Australian people, understand the significance of this land and they have the utmost respect for the sacrifices made by Australian soldiers on their soil,” he said.
Australia suffered particularly heavy losses at Bullecourt because its infantry was supposed to receive cover from tanks, many of which either broke down or were destroyed.
Many Australians blamed the defeat on British planners. Jeremy Banning, a military historian, said: “It was just awful, it was an absolute disaster from its beginning to its end.
“You are throwing troops against the strongest defences that the Germans have got, with inevitable consequences.”
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