France to build airport on Rosières First World War cemetery

After the carnage of the Somme, which claimed 1.3 million lives in the First World War, the graveyard of Rosiÿres was granted 'in perpetuity' to the peoples of Britain and the Commonwealth. There can be few more solemn shrines - so why is the French government planning to build a major new airport on the site?
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The Independent Online

Private W Tallon's grave lies at the end of a muddy track amid the chicory and potato fields off the D337 road between Lihons and Harbonnières in the departement of the Somme. He lies with 59 other British and Commonwealth soldiers in a small cemetery, which – like all other war cemeteries in France – was ceded "in perpetuity" by the French people as a "free gift" to the peoples of Britain and the Commonwealth.

Two things are notable about this small cemetery (other than the usual jarring beauty of the immaculately kept, Lutyens-designed walls, gateways and gravestones). First, all but one of the soldiers who are buried here in the Rosières British Cemetery were killed between 23 and 26 March 1918. And second, unlike the residents of the other graveyards, small and large, which punctuate the empty, green landscape of the Somme, these men came from an eclectic bunch of 30 different British and Commonwealth regiments. They were not all comrades from one battalion. There are hardly more than two men from the same unit. Pte Tallon, who was 26 years old when he died, belonged to the Army Cycling Corps, which – as its name suggests – mostly operated on secondary duties behind the front lines of the war.

The jumble of regiments tells you something of the calamitous, desperate events in these flat, empty fields in March 1918. After almost four years of murderous stalemate in the trenches of the western front, the German army smashed through the British front line 20 miles to the east on 20 March 1918 and threatened to break right through open country to the Channel. The Germans, bolstered by troops released from the eastern front after the Russian revolution, were gambling in an attempt to win the war before their own economy collapsed and before American troops joined the French and British in large numbers.

The British Army initially collapsed but then threw in every available man – including the cycling corps – and eventually stopped the Germans at new trench lines outside Amiens, 15 miles to the west of here. This was the occasion during which the British commander in chief, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, uttered a celebrated, Nelsonic injunction to his troops: "With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight to the end." (It is said that the thought of Haig fighting with his back to the wall of his luxurious château headquarters caused much grim merriment in the British lines.)

Pte W Tallon and the other soldiers buried in the Rosières cemetery died, not in trenches, but fighting in the open, trying to resist the German tide before new defences were built. They had no way of knowing it, but they were taking part in the decisive series of battles of what had appeared to be an endless war. The exhausted Germans were eventually thrown back from Amiens in June. The fields of flat, rich soil around Rosières – more like mournful Flanders than the pretty, undulating Somme – were recaptured by Australian, British and American troops that August. By November the war was over.

When the centenary of those battles comes around in 2018, the fields around the Rosières cemetery – among the most blood-soaked and bone-laden, but also among the most fertile in France – may no longer be fields. Two weeks ago the French government decided that this will be the site for a £3.5bn intercontinental airport, intended to relieve pressure on the two existing Paris airports, but also (it is a scarcely disguised fact) to boost Air France by attracting air traffic from Belgium and Britain.

The Somme airport, if built, will be 80 miles north of Paris (but only half an hour by high-speed TGV train). It will also be 45 minutes by TGV from Brussels and less than two hours by Eurostar from London. There were seven other possible sites, north, east and south of Paris. This one was picked by the French government under pressure from Air France, which argued that the Somme site – giving rail access to Paris, Brussels, Lille, London and even the Netherlands – would give the state-owned airline the best strategic position in the coming struggle to carve up the European air market.

The final plans have not yet been drawn up but it is clear that at least three villages and three First World War cemeteries lie within the likely boundaries of the airport. Two preliminary official plans, seen by The Independent, put the Rosières British Cemetery – ceded by France "in perpetuity" to the British people – towards one end of the airport's southern runway.

A much larger French cemetery nearby, with 6,523 French graves and six British ones, would also be within the airport boundary on both plans. A vast German cemetery at Vermandovillers, with 22,665 graves, would be just off the northern runway. This cemetery – which includes the graves of two German war poets – is inside the airport site on one plan and just outside it on the other. No British war cemetery in France has ever been uprooted before. No French or German cemetery this large has ever been displaced.

The threat to the British, Commonwealth, French and German war graves – first revealed by The Independent two weeks ago – has aroused considerable anger among veterans' groups in Britain, Australia and increasingly (if belatedly) in France. The Germans, with numerically the most reason to protest, have been the slowest to do so, for perhaps understandable reasons.

The First World War historian Jean des Cars, a Frenchman, calls the project "the airport of shame". This week he asked: "Will the government have the indecency to profane the rest and eternal peace of thousands of men to whom we owe our existence?" One does not necessarily have to agree with Mr des Cars' view of the 1914-18 war as a just and sacred conflict to share his opinion that plonking an airport across the Somme battlefields would be an act of gross insensitivity.

During the first battle of the Somme in 1916, it was the French front-line trenches that passed through the proposed airport site. Lord Kitchener's British volunteer army was slaughtered in the hillier land a little to the north. In the village of Vermandovillers, which will disappear under the northern runway, there is a sign declaring the locality to be "une place du souvenir Français" – in other words, a place that is inscribed permanently in the French national memory. "Valorous are those who rest forever in this earth," the sign says.

Two years later it was Australian troops who fought and died in Vermandovillers. A sign on the village's mairie (town hall) records the fact that Lieutenant Lawrence Dominic McCarthy of the Australian army won the Victoria Cross at this spot on 23 August 1918 when he "single-handedly captured 460 metres of German trench line".

If the airport is built the graves will be moved elsewhere, but all these places of French, British and Australian "souvenir" will disappear permanently under tarmac and concrete. The huge German military cemetery, in a beautiful wood just north of Vermandovillers, may survive but it would be left stranded on the edge of a runway.

To visit this place is as moving – both peaceful and unsettling – as visiting the British and French cemeteries. Among the metal and concrete crosses, under which the economical Germans have placed four soldiers to a grave, there are scores and scores of tombstones in the shape of Stars of David. One wonders what happened, two decades later, to the mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters of these young men, who fought and died for the same Fatherland as their Christian comrades.

Earlier this week, the British junior Defence minister, Lewis Moonie, said in a House of Commons written answer that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Government would "firmly oppose" any plan to move British graves on the Somme. The Royal British Legion has said that its members would be "deeply disturbed" by any attempt to move the Rosières cemetery (however small it may be, compared to other British cemeteries further north). There have been anti-French rumblings in the Daily Mail and The Sun.

The French government has promised to consider the British objections. The Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, said after the Anglo-French summit in London on Thursday: "France has, naturally, the greatest respect for the graves of those soldiers who fell on our side – and even on the other side. If necessary, a solution will be found, in full consultation with our British friends."

Under the terms of the cession of land "in perpetuity" for British cemeteries, the French government can ask for the land back – but only for "important reasons of state". Is the building of a new airport an "important reason of state"? The French government evidently believes so; it is quite prepared to move three villages and its own war cemetery. It may be difficult, when negotiations begin, for Britain to refuse to move 60 graves when France is moving 6,000.

French officials say it would be "premature" to begin the negotiations now as the exact shape and extent of the new airport have yet to be decided. It might be possible to "angle" the airport in such a a way, they say, that all the cemeteries can remain where they are.

This is a disingenuous argument. The site is hemmed in by motorways on its northern and eastern boundaries and by the town of Chaulnes to the south. Looking at the provisional plans, it is difficult to see how any airport could be built in this place, on the scale envisaged, without disturbing at least two of the three cemeteries.

In the past, when constructing motorways and high-speed railway lines through the First World War battlefields, the French government has agreed to make small detours to avoid disturbing graves. It will not be so easy to make twists and turns in an airport site that is likely to be five miles long and two miles wide.

Despite the strongly-worded statement in the House of Commons written reply by Mr Mooney on Monday, the British Government is – rightly – determined to avoid a confrontation with France at this stage. There are presidential and parliamentary elections in France next year. A change of government could lead to the airport project being dropped altogether (just as the present government dropped its predecessor's plan to build one near Chartres, south of Paris.)

However, Air France has linked its future as a leading – maybe the leading – European airline to the building of a Somme airport by the year 2020. That is an argument likely to fly whichever side wins next year's elections.

Does any of this really matter? The First World War has almost faded from living memory. Life has to go on. There are already light industries spreading out from the towns of Albert and Arras, over parts of the "British" battlefields that lie further to the north. What does it matter if the graves are moved (however grisly and extraordinary an undertaking it may be to move a total of 30,000 war graves)?

So long as new cemeteries are created, why should it matter if the long-dead soldiers of a long-finished war rest in one place or another? The gravestones often crumble anyway: they continue to look as newly minted as they do only because they are periodically and lovingly replaced by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

There is some weight in these arguments. But the argument against the Somme airport is a broader one. The Somme is important: it is the British equivalent of Verdun, the great symbol of the sacrifice and the futility of the first industrial war of mass destruction. Something like 1,200,000 soldiers on all sides died in the Somme battles of 1916 and 1918, more than one in 10 of all the soldiers killed in the First World War.

Many of these soldiers were French, but the Somme has never had the same resonance for the French as Verdun or Le Chemin des Dames, the sites of the great Franco-German battles that took place further to the east in 1916 and 1917. It would have been unthinkable for the French government to have dumped an airport across the battlefields of Verdun. It should be equally unthinkable for the French government to concrete over British and Australian – and German – memories in the Somme.