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Battle Cry Sounds Over Graves of War

France: Memories of World War I clash with travelers' needs as the government plans an airport in an area dotted with old battlefields.


CHAULNES, France — Pvt. Andrew Creasy was killed near the end of World War I during a final, desperate offensive by German forces through the Somme.

The British soldier lies in a small cemetery amid potato and chicory fields. For now.

France's plan to build a futuristic airport in a region dotted with old battlefields could force the removal of more than 1,000 British, Australian, Canadian and South African war graves--including Creasy's.

"I'd be horrified to see my granddad's remains moved after all these years," said Mark Adlam, Creasy's great-grandson.

"I don't think anybody can understand the horror of what they went through," he said in a shaky voice, speaking by telephone from England. "They were just kids when they died. They must be left where they fell."

The sacred memories of the Great War are clashing with the modern need to alleviate passenger overload at Paris' Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports. The government plans to build a third field at Chaulnes, 80 miles north of Paris, with completion sometime between 2015 and 2020.

French officials say no final decisions have been made about exactly where the airport's terminals and runways will be laid. But they acknowledge that at least one Commonwealth cemetery--containing 376 graves, at the heart of the site--almost certainly will have to go.

A total of 1,248 graves of Commonwealth soldiers are within the boundaries of the proposed airport, along with the remains of 7,200 French.

Adlam was not aware of the airport plans when he recently made his third trip to his great-grandfather's grave at Bouchoir, one of an estimated 2 million people who visit war cemeteries in northern France every year.

The blood-soaked fields of the Somme--where farmers still find the bones of those who perished--are considered sacrosanct by Commonwealth countries. A million allied and German soldiers lost their lives in the four-year stalemate in the murderous trenches of the Somme.

Angered by the airport plan, Commonwealth countries point to the words engraved in stone at Bouchoir, describing the cemetery as the "free gift of the French people" for the "perpetual resting place" of the allied armies who fell in the war.

Annick Carbonnier, an official at the government's Airport Bureau in the Picardy region, which oversees the project, said war cemeteries would be shifted only "with the agreement of the countries affected."

She added that the remains would be treated with "the greatest respect and dignity for the memory of the sacrifice of those soldiers."

But Mike Johnson of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission said the French government didn't consult the commission before announcing a revised airport boundary Feb. 26. "Any threat or risk to the war graves has to be discussed with us," he said.

Johnson said the new airport could force the first mass removal in Europe of the remains of World War I troops. "The last time part of a Commonwealth war cemetery was moved was in northern Iraq, more than 15 years ago," he said.

France has the advantage of a legal loophole. Under terms of a long-standing agreement with the war graves commission, France can put the land to alternate use if there is an "overriding public necessity."

Australia, which lost 44,000 soldiers in World War I, is leading diplomatic efforts to preserve the graves. "They are the resting place of men who died for freedom and are sacred," Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said in March.

A brief tour of the grave commission's offices near the northern town of Arras reveals the enduring importance attached to the cemeteries.

About 2,500 sparkling white headstones are still engraved there every year, to replace damaged ones and to provide a proper resting place for newly discovered remains--for whom it is written: "Known Unto God."

About once a week, teams of gardeners plant flowers and spray headstones to keep them clean and shiny.

It isn't just the dead that risk being uprooted.

The farming village of Fouquescourt, which lies at the heart of the proposed airport, almost certainly would be wiped off the map. A handwritten message hung outside a red brick house with ivy crawling up its sides informs visitors that "this is the future site of the control tower."

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