The bond between Villers-Bretonneux and Australia is a strong one and goes back to the First World War.
Villers-Bretonneux is a small village in the Somme department of Picardie in northern France. It became famous in 1918, when the German advance on Amiens ended in the capture of the village by their tanks and infantry on April 23.
Marshal Foch, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Armies, immediately ordered the recapture of the town. On the following day, the 4th and 5th Australian Divisions recaptured the whole of the village at a cost to Australia of some 1200 lives.
The capture of Villers-Bretonneux was described by a British observer, Brigadier General George Grogan VC, as “perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war”. The town’s mayor spoke of the Australian troops on July 14, 1919 when unveiling a memorial in their honour:
The first inhabitants of Villers-Bretonneux to re-establish themselves in the ruins of what was once a flourishing little town have, by means of donations, shown a desire to thank the valorous Australian Armies, who with the spontaneous enthusiasm and characteristic dash of their race, in a few hours drove out an enemy ten times their number…They offer a memorial tablet, a gift which is but the least expression of their gratitude, compared with the brilliant feat which was accomplished by the sons of Australia…Soldiers of Australia, whose brothers lie here in French soil, be assured that your memory will always be kept alive, and that the burial places of your dead will always be respected and cared for…
The people of Villers-Bretonneux continue to show their gratitude by maintaining a strong bond of friendship with Australia. The school in Villers-Bretonneux was rebuilt using donations from school children of Victoria, and above every blackboard is the inscription “N’oublions jamais l’Australie” (Let us never forget Australia).
Several streets bear Australian names. The Franco Australian Museum is based on the first floor of the Victoria School and looks at the role played by Australian forces during World War I.
On a cold and wet morning in October, 2008, Ruth and I set out from Paris by train for Amiens where we connected with another train for Villers-Bretonneux. The trip took about two hours. The modern and comfortable train seemed out-of-place standing alongside the somewhat run-down Gare de Villers-Bretonneux.
The station was deserted, and we later found out that it was only open from Monday to Friday from 5:45 to 9 am and from 12:30 to 1:30 pm. Our research suggested that buses and taxis operated regularly between the station and the memorial. We could not have been more wrong as there was neither bus nor taxi in sight.
We had no alternative but to walk, in the rain. A comfort stop was an urgent requirement. Luckily we came across a bar, bought the obligatory coffee and experienced our first squat toilet in France.
Back on the road again and still raining. Names such as Rue de Melbourne, Rue de Victoria, Victoria School and Restaurant Kangourou passed us by, highlighting the bond between Australia and the town.
The position of the Australian National Memorial is located between Villers-Bretonneux and Fouilloy on a hill (belonging to the latter but overlooking the former). It overlooks Amiens, the Somme Valley and the town from which it has its name.
We left the town behind us and continued walking towards Fouilloy. The open expanse of treeless fields masked by rain and mist created a lonely silence, broken only by the occasional car speeding by. The famous night-time attack by Australian troops was launched from Hill 104, the site of the Australian National Memorial. They must have charged through these fields towards Villers-Bretonneux. We were walking over the battlefield.
We had been walking for almost an hour. As we came around a bend, the road began to rise gently towards a plateau. We could see the beginning of the stone steps leading up to the cemetery. Our anticipation grew. The rain stopped and a calm descended.
The steps lead to the entrance of the Villers-Bretonneux British Military Cemetery that was commenced in 1918. The Australian National Memorial, which is located at the back of the cemetery, did not commence construction until 1935.
There is nothing that compares to a war memorial that is almost deserted. No distractions exist to interrupt the solemnity of the occasion. You are left alone with your thoughts.
The quietness and serenity of the site reminded me that we were on sacred land. Those buried here must surely be at peace. As I walked among the immaculately kept graves and read the inscriptions, I could not help but be moved by the sacrifice of these young men, so far from home and fighting for people in a foreign land.
The Memorial itself is an imposing building. Eleven Thousand names are engraved on that wall; eleven thousand Australian soldiers fallen in France but with no known grave. That number is massive and hard to comprehend. No Australian government would survive today with such a casualty count.
The Australian National Memorial honours all 295,00 Australians who fought on the Western Front and the more than 46,000 who died there. The Australian population during 1914-1918 was only four million. Four Hundred and sixteen thousand Australians enlisted for service in the First World War, representing 38.7% of the total male population aged between 18 to 44. Fifty-nine thousand were killed, and 167,000 were wounded. The Australian casualty rate of 65% was the highest of the war.
Inside the memorial and at the foot of the staircase that leads to the tower, is a framed transcript of the eulogy delivered by former Prime Minister, Paul Keating, at the funeral service of the Unknown Australian Soldier in Canberra on November 11, 1993.
I remembered how much I was impressed by that service on November 11, 1993, the 75th anniversary of the Armistice which ended fighting on the Western Front; how the soldier’s body was transferred halfway around the world from Villers-Bretonneux, accompanied by the Mayor of the day.
The Unknown Australian Soldier whom we are interring today was one of those who, by his deeds, proved that real nobility and grandeur belongs, not to empires and nations, but to the people on whom they, in the last resort, always depend. Paul Keating’s Eulogy to the Unknown Australia Soldier.
At the top of the tower, the view is majestic. It is hard to believe that these beautiful fields were once part of a horrific war. It is hard to believe that so many lost their lives on the lush pastures before me. So many, so young, so long ago.
The memorial that honours those who sacrificed their lives during the Great War, the War to End All Wars, was finally completed in 1938, just before the beginning of the next Great War. Memorials help us remember the past, but do very little to prevent history repeating itself.
Every year, Ruth and I fly from Australia to France over a large part of the world that is still wracked by war. The futility of war seems lost on those who seek power. Wars are a manifestation of our inability to get along with each other. That inability exists with nations as well as with individuals. As long as egos get in the way of solutions, history will continue to repeat itself.
I have never fought in a war, and I have no wish to do so. All I could think of on that cold and wet day, at the top of the tower overlooking a battlefield of days gone by was: There, but for the grace of God, go I.
I am thankful to those that fought on my behalf, and I will always remember them.
Today is Anzac Day.
Lest We Forget.