12th November 2018
Dear WFA member
The Butte de Warlencourt
This letter is to bring you up to date about the Butte de Warlencourt. It is being circulated to all WFA members and is meant to be read alongside our supporting background document, also enclosed.
As you may know, the Butte is an ancient earthwork which in 1916 played a significant role during the Battles of the Somme. In 1990, it was acquired by the WFA, on the initiative of the then Executive Committee (“EC”).
Maintenance has always been an issue and attempts have been made unsuccessfully to secure the Butte’s future with external organisations. The first attempt was in the 1990s with the Historial de la Grande Guerre at Péronne; the second in 2010 was with the Département du Nord, the regional authority.
A major overhaul of the maintenance of the Butte took place in 2013. Bob Paterson - the then WFA European Officer - with the late David Easton, cleared vegetation, and added steps and memorial benches, together with an improved car park. Since Bob retired from the EC in July 2016, the site has been difficult to maintain and develop from the UK. The Butte also comes with liability implications from accidents and probably contains unexploded munitions (in 2016 alone, 25 tonnes of live ordnance were removed from the area).
The EC were facing a number of legal issues. While the assets of the WFA are, under English law, held by the trustees, French law does not recognise the principles of English Trust Law. In France, the Butte was simply owned by “The Western Front Association” which is not a legal entity. In addition, the existing UK Trust Document needed to be updated to reflect changes to the Trustees.
We had to conclude that there was a risk that the French insurers of the Butte may not pay out in the event of a claim and accordingly that the WFA and potentially its trustees could be exposed to financial claims. As trustees we had to act in what we considered to be the best interest of the association as a whole and therefore we determined that a sale of the Butte to Bob Paterson, himself a French property owner, would resolve the legal and liability issues as well as retaining WFA association with the site. Staged funding from the WFA would have helped cover continued maintenance and development; and guarantee an on-going WFA presence.
Quite separately to negotiating with Bob we were in contact with the French insurers to increase the level of cover. This was refused. We were also advised that cover would not be renewed with an implication that existing cover would be terminated.
In response to the concerns of some WFA members since the sale, Bob Paterson has indicated a willingness to transfer ownership of the Butte back to the WFA. This however would not resolve the underlying issues that prompted the initial sale. To endeavour to resolve these, the EC will establish a working group to explore all options and make recommendations on the future ownership/management of the Butte as well as future WFA governance. We wish to implement this at the earliest possible opportunity and details are on the WFA website news section.
The next AGM will take place on 27th April 2019. The current EC will remain in post until then, or will leave earlier if suitable transition arrangements can be made. Either way, the priority is to ensure the WFA continues to have the governance structure required by law. Until then, Stand To!, Bulletin and Trench Lines will continue to be published and the office remain open. Conferences will be organised, the website maintained, and branches and members supported. In other words, there will be continuity.
The next AGM will appoint the 2019/20 Executive Committee. The current EC invites interested members to consider standing as trustees. Nominations must be received by the Honorary Secretary by 20th January 2019. (Details: firstname.lastname@example.org)
The EC deeply regrets the communication failures and the decision-making processes associated with the sale. We’re very sorry indeed that we have upset members; this was not our intention.
Yours faithfully, for the Executive Committee of The Western Front Association