On his modest farm in the shadow of the village church steeple, a French farmer will this morning make the sombre walk across his fields, a bunch of flowers in hand, to a special place.
While Australians around the country pause and lay wreaths to honour their war dead, the farmer will place his flowers, not on a cenotaph or headstone, but on a simple patch of earth. It is a ritual he makes twice every year; today on Remembrance Day and Anzac Day.
Here, in northern France on the little Bullecourt farm that his family has worked for generations across two wars, he pays his respects. This, he says, is sacred ground, the final resting place of two soldiers he knows lay beneath.
Where cattle now graze peacefully, his farm was once part of the killing fields of the two brutal battles of Bullecourt. Over six bloody weeks in the spring of 1917, Australia suffered 10,000 casualties in the bitter Allied conflict with Germany.
It is estimated as many as 4000 men, among them some 2500 Australians, lay unrecovered at Bullecourt. From Warrnambool alone, at least 36 soldiers died, and scores more from the wider south-west region. To many, the fields of Bullecourt are simply a mass war grave.
The French farmer tells his story to groups of Australian battlefield visitors like Warrnambool man Bill McKellar who come in search of their missing and to pay their respects.
Mr McKellar has made the pilgrimage three times, the last in April, to walk these fields in honour of his uncle Mitchell McKellar, the 24-year-old Ballangeich farmer shot down in the first of the Bullecourt battles. His older brother Jack was to die six months later at the infamous Passchendaele battle.
For relatives like Mr McKellar whose loved ones still rest in the Bullecourt fields, this week’s announcement that plans to build a wind farm on this very patch of land will be strongly opposed by the Australian Government, has come as a relief.
Veterans Affairs Minister and Wannon MP Dan Tehan said he would do all he could to protect the land for future generations of Australians and French alike.
After discussions with French Secretary of State to the Minister for Armed Forces, Genevieve Darrieussecq, Mr Tehan said he had raised Australia’s concerns about the land being disturbed in a way which could impact on any remains.
Although the French government has the final say, Mr Tehan said that by working co-operatively with France, he was hopeful the project would be stopped within months.
Mr McKellar said he was heartened by Mr Tehan’s undertaking.
“This is definitely not a place for a wind farm. There must be other places they can put one,” he said.
“I’d like the bodies to be recovered, but if they can’t be found, at least leave them undisturbed.”
The proposal by French company Engie Green, comprises six wind turbines 15 kilometres south-east of Arras in the department of Pas-de-Calais.
Closely corresponding to the Bullecourt battlefields, the wind farm would be sited between the villages of Bullecourt, Riencourt-les-Cagnicourt, Queant and Noreuil.
One turbines would stand 500 metres from the Bullecourt Digger statue in the Australian Memorial Park just outside the village. Two of them coincide with areas regarded as highly sensitive to the Australian casualties.
The proposal has raised the concerns not just of Australian families of the missing, but many French villagers who retain a deep respect for the Aussie Diggers who fought for their country’s freedom a century ago.
Protest group Les 7 Clochers was formed several years ago to fight the wind farm and several local mayors, including Bullecourt mayor Gladys Dickson, and Reincourt’s Gerard Crutel have publicly opposed its construction.
Mr Crutel told French newspaper La Voix du Nord: “This project, I do not want it here. We are not against wind turbines, but there are still limits. Too much is enough, they are everywhere.”
Port Fairy military researcher Maria Cameron, who will visit the Bullecourt site with local protesters next week after attending the Remembrance Day service at Fromelles on the Somme, welcomed Mr Tehan’s stand against the wind farms.
“I am very pleased that our Minister Dan Tehan has taken up the fight to join not only Australians but the French people who are joined together in the fight to stop these windmills being constructed over the remains of many Australian soldiers still lying in the fields of Bullecourt.”
Sergeant Simon Fraser, the soldier from Byaduk immortalised in the bronze ‘Cobbers’ statue at the Fromelles Memorial Park and later killed at Bullecourt with no known grave, is the great uncle of Mrs Cameron’s husband Max.
“These men who fought for us at Bullecourt where we had 10,000 casualties deserve respect and I am urging everyone to fight for them,” Mrs Cameron said.
“This place was called ‘the blood tub’. I cannot believe anyone would even think of putting windmills there. It is akin to putting them all over Gallipoli.
“Bullecourt is a huge burial ground of young lost lives.”
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