For more than a hundred years now, poppies and cornflowers flourish together in Northern France – Meanderings through France n° 132
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Since 1916 an indestructible friendship unites Australia to a small French village called Villers-Bretonneux. Today, to celebrate this link born on the battlefields, Australia is building a state-of-the-art remembrance place, the “Sir John Monash Centre” that will open in April 1918.
There are many war memorials in the Somme department that commemorate one of the most terrible battles of the Great War, the “Somme Offensive”. Last year the Somme department was the meeting place for British, French, South African, Canadian, New Zealander, Australian, Irish and thirteen other nations who suffered so heavy casualties during these dreadful days. Unlike the Battle of Verdun that opposed the German to the French armies, the Battle of the Somme is the symbol of the internationalization of the war.
The ANZAC at war on the Western Front
As a part of the British Empire, Australia and New Zealand send men to the European Western front. They formed the famous ANZAC, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. They first fought in Gallipoli, in Italy, and later were sent to France in July 1916 and they took an active part in the Battle of the Somme. They were commanded by Lieutenant-General John Monash who led them to victory on the Messines Ridge, in Belgium in 1917.
In the spring of 1918 they were back in the Somme and on April 25th they stopped the great German offensive in Villers-Bretonneux They kept up the attack on the retreating Germans and continued their eastward progression all through the summer. Still commanded by General John Monash they defeated the Germans in “Le Hamel” in May 1918 and in “Mont-Saint-Quentin” in August. They were finally allowed to get some rest and came back to Villers-Bretonneux. This was in October 1918, just one month before the armistice. 295,000 Australian combatants fought on the Western Front, 132,000 were injured and 46,000 died.
The Australian troops and Villers-Bretonneux
During their rest periods in Villers-Bretonneux the Australian soldiers made friends with the villagers and after the end of the war several young French women got married to Aussies and left for Australia to start a family. But the friendship bonds went far beyond these love stories. During the war over 80% of the village had been destroyed and Australians took an active role in its reconstruction. The rebuilding of the village school is a major symbol of this friendship. Back home the Australian soldiers organized a fund raising among Australian schoolchildren who were asked to give one penny to help the children of Villers-Bretonneux.
Today this school, called “Victoria School”, that has been built at the very same place as the one destroyed in 1918 still is a primary school. Its second floor is a museum dedicated to this beautiful French-Australian bond. Uniforms, medals, diaries, letters and a wonderful collection of photos tell us a lot about these years of common history and each year many descendants of the Australian soldiers visit the museum and still bring artefacts of the war to expand the museum’s collection. The school motto “Do not forget Australia” still makes sense.
The Australian Memorial and the new “Sir John Monash Centre”
The National Australian Memorial was officially opened in 1938 by King George VI and the future Queen Elizabeth II, close to Villers-Bretonneux. Two neoclassical pavilions precede a Commonwealth military cemetery that leads to a high white tower from where you will get a panoramic view over the countryside where many battles took place. Every year on April 25th the “ANZAC Day Dawn Service” at 5:30 am brings together several hundreds of French and Australian people to honour the memory of all those who were killed during WW I. The Embassy of Australia and Villers-Bretonneux take this opportunity to organize sports games, concerts, memorial walks… and to strengthen their ties.
Next year will be the hundredth anniversary of the decisive Australian counter attack against the Germans on April 25th, 1918 and the ANZAC Day will take a further peculiar meaning. To celebrate this very special anniversary the Australian government is building a new Memorial next to the first one. An Australian architectural firm, COX, and a French one, JLA, have worked together to create this state of the art building. As a reminder of the trenches of the Great War it will be partly buried and have a grass-covered roof. Only the best materials are being used: architectural white concrete, different precious woods coming from the 8 different regions of Australia, solid bronze, fine granites and marbles…
As a tribute to General Monash, this great tactician who was knighted as a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath on the battlefield by King George V on August 12th 1918, this Memorial will officially be named “Sir John Monash Centre”. Visitors will be part of an interactive trail during which they will follow the daily life of an Australian soldier in the trenches and during the battles. This immersion will illustrate the scale of their sacrifice.
More about the Great War Remembrance events in the Somme department: http://www.visit-somme.com/great-war
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes