British charity sells Somme battlefield plot without telling members

When King George V, Edward, Prince of Wales, and General Julian Byng visited the Western Front in July 1917, they climbed the Butte de WarlencourtCredit:Military History Collection / Alamy King George V, Edward, Prince of Wales, and General Julian Byng visit the Western Front in July 1917. On July 1, 1916, some 19,240 British troops lost their lives on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.In one of the bloodiest battles in human history, one of the most contested pieces of land on the Western Front was the Butte de Warlencourt – a hill on an otherwise flat plain, dubbed ‘a miniature Gibraltar,’ which changed hands between Germany and the allied forces three times in two years.Now, approaching 100 years since the end of the First World War, a very different fight has flared up over the Butte’s ownership, involving a British amateur history organisation and its angry members.The Western Front Association used its members’ donations to purchase the acre of land for a modest 5,000 French Francs (£670) in 1990, and has maintained it ever since. But last month the famous Butte was quietly sold to the group’s former chairman, Bob Paterson, in a deal struck behind closed doors. The WFA’s 6,500 members only found out in a newsletter earlier this week.The move has been branded disgraceful, disappointing and arrogant, and some have cancelled their membership as a result. One trustee resigned their position after the vote was taken in their absence, and the Charity Commission has said it will investigate the sale. The white chalky remains of the Butte de Warlencourt surrounded by battle-scarred countryside, painted by William OrpenCredit:Military History Collection / Alamy “To think that they feel they can make a decision such as this without even having consulted any member is disgraceful and even more so disappointing,” added another member, Genevra Charsley.A spokesperson for the Charity Commission said: “Charity trustees are under a legal duty to act in the best interests of their charity. This is an important principle of charity law and critical to maintaining the confidence of supporters and the wider public. The white chalky remains of the Butte de Warlencourt surrounded by battle-scarred countryside, painted by William Orpen “Poor timing, lacks transparency, smacks of cronyism, indifferent & dismissive to members,” said one WFA member, Nick Champion. The WFA insist that it is not a commercial sale, and that they were forced into the position by rising insurance costs and the fact they are not based in France. “The executive committee did not shy away from a difficult decision and we gave it considerable thought,” said trustee and legal advisor to the group, Richard Hughes.“There could be unexploded ordnance there, people could fall on the hill and injure themselves, and in the nasty, litigious climate we live in today, it is seven or eight trustees who carry the can, not the 6,500 members,” he added.“Bob is the best buyer at the best time for this. He lives nearby and has a long association with the WFA. The agreement means that there is a 25-year commitment from him to maintain the site and its heritage, as well as keeping access open. We have committed to sponsoring the notice boards and maintaining our relationship with the Butte.”The site is understood to have changed hands for around €14,000 and according to the WFA, Mr Paterson, who was chair between 2014-2016, “has several thoughts and plans to both maintain the Butte de Warlencourt as a heritage site and encourage more visitors to the site by, for example, developing its web and social media presence.”Mr Paterson could not be reached for comment, but Richard Hughes said: “Nobody can make money on the land. If he tried to do anything like build a visitor centre, he’d lose a fortune.” “We will be contacting the trustees of the Western Front Association to ensure that they have taken all appropriate steps in decision-making around the sale of Butte de Warlencourt.”The Butte de Warlencourt was one of very few key battlefield sites in the Somme that was owned and protected by a charity. While some Britons run bed and breakfasts which cater to First World War tourism in the Somme, only a handful of famous battle sites are privately owned, including the nearby Lochnagar mine, bought in 1978 by Richard Dunning, who was awarded an MBE for his services to First World War remembrance. The Butte de Warlencourt saw some of the fiercest fighting of the First World War, with the hill changing hands between the Germans and Allied forces three timesCredit: Christiaan May / Alamy In November 1916, the landscape was very different. Aged 25, and having already won a Victoria Cross, Lt Colonel Roland Bradford, the commanding officer of the 9th battalion Durham Light Infantry, was ordered to attack the German forces controlling the Butte. “It is wonderful, when one considers the difficulties under which our men were working and the fearful fire to which they were exposed, that they held on for so long as they did. And it makes you proud to be an Englishman,” he said, after the failed mission.“The Butte de Warlencourt had become an obsession. Everybody wanted it. It loomed large in the minds of the soldiers in the forward area and they attributed many of their misfortunes to it. The newspaper correspondents talked about ‘that miniature Gibraltar.’ So it had to be taken.” A poppy wreath at the Butte de Warlencourt memorial, Somme, France Want the best of The Telegraph direct to your email and WhatsApp? Sign up to our free twice-daily  Front Page newsletter and new  audio briefings. read more