International airport on Somme battlefield will force the first mass removal of soldiers' graves

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The Independent Online

Over the bodies of the living and the dead, the French government will plough ahead with plans for an international airport on the Somme battlefields and war cemeteries 80 miles north of Paris.

Despite the collapse in air travel since 11 September and despite evidence that Paris has no pressing need for a third big airport, Lionel Jospin, the Prime Minister, will approve plans tonight to build a futuristic terminal at Chaulnes, almost halfway between Paris and Calais. The government hopes eventually that the airport, designed for long-haul flights, will draw traffic from Britain and other countries.

At least one village will have to be destroyed and three largely dismantled to make way for the airport, next to the high-speed railway to London, Brussels and Lille. The site, controversial for several reasons, will force the first mass removal of graves of soldiers killed in the First World War.

A small British cemetery containing the remains of 20 soldiers killed in March 1918, on land granted "in perpetuity" by the French state, like all British war cemeteries, falls within the proposed airport boundary. So does a large French military cemetery, also containing six British graves.

The 15-year construction of the terminal will also force the removal of the bodies of 22,665 German soldiers, in one of the largest German war cemeteries in France, now occupying the site of what will be the airport's northern runway.

Mike Johnson of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission said no British war cemetery in France had been moved before. "We would object vigorously," he said. Eckhardt Holtz, of the German war graves authority in Metz, said his first reaction had been that moving so many graves was impossible. "But if the French insist, and they pay to build another cemetery elsewhere, and they are moving their own cemetery near by, I suppose we cannot stand in their way."

Press reports say Chaulnes will be selected from a shortlist of eight possible airport sites by Mr Jospin and a group of ministers in Paris. The location has been chosen, in part, to relieve protests against air traffic noise in the Paris suburbs. But the site has also been pushed vigorously by Air France, the state-owned airline, which hopes the inter-continental terminal will attract passengers from Belgium and from Britain.

The airport will be less than two hours from London by rail once the high-speed line through Kent and eastern London is completed. It will be 30 minutes from Paris by TGV and 45 minutes from Brussels.

But the choice of the Chaulnes area has infuriated people living there. "It is our memories, our childhoods that they are rubbing out," said Ghislaine Caussin, 71, whose home in the village of Vermandovillers stands in the middle of what will become a main runway.

Raphael Poupard, 61, the Mayor, is struggling to mount a rearguard action from his one-room town hall, with one telephone line and no fax machine. "Look at the map," Mr Poupard said. "The other threatened villages may survive a little but we will be wiped out 100 per cent. Vermandovillers will be scratched from the map of France. And why? No airport built so far from a city has ever succeeded."

Mr Poupard has a point. Although the Chaulnes site seems logical, next to a junction of two motorways and the TGV line to the north, its apparent advantages are misleading. The A1 motorway to Paris is already choked. The TGV line is running at full capacity. Two new tracks would have to be added all the way to Paris to serve the airport. Northern France is, in any case, an air traffic bottleneck. Putting the airport south of Paris would have made more sense.

Yves Crochet, the French Environment Minister, who is from the Green party, says there is no need for a third airport, after Charles de Gaulle and Orly. The complaints of pressure groups in the Paris suburbs could be met by trans- ferring freight and other flights to the provinces.

But this misses the real argument. The promise of expansion at an intercontinental airport within 15 to 20 years will give Air France a huge advantage in the battle for domination of the European skies, as smaller carriers disappear. Putting that airport within a short high-speed train ride of Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany will, Air France hopes, prove to be a strategic masterstroke.

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