Revised airport plan threatens more Somme graves

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Amended proposals to build an international airport on the Somme threaten 20 times as many British and Commonwealth war graves as the original plan, which was angrily opposed by the British Government and veterans' groups.

After fierce opposition from locals, the £3.5bn project for a third commercial airport to serve Paris has been shifted 10 miles to the south.

The original plans, which were announced last year, would have forced the removal of two British cemeteries and 66 graves. The new proposals threaten up to eight British and Commonwealth cemeteries and 1,248 graves. The re-siting of the airport spares a vast German cemetery with 22,665 graves at Vermandovillers and a large French cemetery with 6,500 graves at Lihons, but another substantial French cemetery at Maucourt, with 5,000 graves, and a British one at Fouquescourt, with 376 graves, lie at the centre of the proposed new site.

Other British and French cemeteries lie towards the edges of the new "study perimeter" and might survive intact, depending on the final decisions of the French government.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission said yesterday that it was "astonished" to find that the proposed new site would cause even more disruption to graves than the original plan.

The land for all war cemeteries in France was ceded "in perpetuity" by the French people as a "free gift" to the peoples of Britain and the Commonwealth. They can only be moved for "important reasons of state". Since the early 1920s, when some smaller cemeteries were merged on permanent sites, no British First World War cemetery in France has been uprooted.

Mike Johnson, of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, said: "Our position remains that we do not wish to remove any graves. We will now have to talk very seriously to the French government."

The Royal British Legion has said that its members would be "deeply disturbed" by any attempt to move graves. The Defence minister Lewis Moonie said in a House of Commons written answer that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Government would "firmly oppose" the original plan.

Lionel Jospin, the French Prime Minister, promised to heed British anxieties at the Anglo-French summit in London three months ago. "France has, naturally, the greatest respect for the graves of those soldiers who fell on our side – and even on the other side," he said. "If necessary, a solution will be found, in full consultation with our British friends."

In fact, the amended draft proposals appear mostly to have responded to the energetic opposition of a cluster of threatened villages north of the town of Chaulnes and the objections of the larger towns of Amiens and Saint Quentin, which would have been under the flight path of the more northerly site.

Germany, which made the least fuss about the original plan, has benefited most from the change. The huge German war cemetery at Vermandovillers will remain untouched.

Almost as many French graves are threatened by the new plan as the original one and many times more British and Commonwealth ones. The greatest concern is for the cemetery at Fouquescourt, containing British, Australian, Canadian and South African graves from March 1918, which lies at the heart of the proposed airport site.

North of Ypres, scene of three bloody and protracted battles in the First World War, a campaign is being waged to protect six cemeteries from a proposed road linking Ypres with Kortrijk on the Belgian coast. The road is seen as vital to the area's prosperity, but protesters say it would violate the sanctity of the war dead.