This is a sobering place, with its thousands of graves, and the 11,000 names engraved on the Memorial itself – the names of all those Australian soldiers who died in France but whose gravesite is unknown.
Postcard from Paris 4: N’oublions jamais l’Australie!
The other day, we headed north out of Paris for a couple of days, on a research trip to the Amiens area and the battlefields of the Somme on the Western Front of WW1. I’m going to be writing a novel for young people set around that ‘other Anzac Day’ – 25th April 1918, when, three years to the day after Gallipoli, Australian troops had a big – and costly – victory against the Germans near the village of Villers-Bretonneux, capturing a rise known as Hill 104: a victory which can be said to have truly spelt the beginning of the end of that terrible war. The victory cost 1,200 Australian lives in a single day but liberated the village and paved the way for the relief of the surrounding area, the defence of Amiens and the eventual armistice.
The people of Villers-Bretonneux and the surrounding area have never forgotten the Australian sacrifice. From the very beginning, they maintained the graves of soldiers who fell there, and to this day they continue to honour their memory. It is the only place in France, it seems, that people do not just think of Australia generically as a ‘pays de rêve’ a dream country of wild landscapes and relaxed lifestyle where young French people in search of a last free fling before settling down into the straitjacket of a ‘bonne situation’ (good position) head to find what they consider to be the ‘last frontier’. (really!) No, the Australian impact on Villers-Bretonneux and the rest of the Upper Somme is much deeper. It is the story not only of sacrifice and courage in the face of an appalling fate, but also of warm personal relations that were forged during that time which generations later seem to endure. We were told that there are stories which have been handed down in families about the ‘tall, friendly and outgoing’ young men who made many friends amongst the local population – and amongst the French troops as well, including a detachment of Zouaves, or native Algerian colonial troops, who fought and died with the Australians in that region – and in whose history special mention is made of the easy and natural relations they enjoyed with the Antipodean soldiers (perhaps unlike those they had with the soldiers of metropolitan France).
When you come into Villers-Bretonneux, first of all you see a sign: ‘Jumelée avec Robinvale (Victoria, Australie),’ and then another big sign, complete with the stylised kangaroo you see on many of the public buildings in this large village, reading ‘L’Australie en Picardie’ (Picardy being the region). The twinning of the Somme village and the Victorian township is more than just a random thing, for Robinvale itself was named in honour of Robin Cuttle, a daring young Victorian airman who lost his life in the area near Villers-Bretonneux. In fact, there were many Victorians in the battalion based in the area – which explains also the continuing strong links with that state, and the fact that after the Great War, Victorian schoolchildren and adults subscribed to a fund to rebuild the destroyed primary school in Villers-Bretonneux – which still stands today, and is called ‘Victoria School’, housing not only the school itself but the very interesting Franco-Australian museum. And which in the school hall, known as the Victoria Hall, with its lovely carvings of Australian native animals and the twinned French and Australian flags, is a sign simply reading, ‘N’oublions jamais l’Australie’ (never forget Australia.)
Just before the village is the Adelaide Cemetery, which contains dozens of Australian and Commonwealth graves – this was also where the Unknown Australian Soldier was taken from and reburied in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. When we were there, it was only a week or so after Anzac Day and there were many fresh wreaths, including a dignified and moving one at the original marker of the Unknown Australian Soldier, from the family of Lt Michael Fussell, killed in Afghanistan in 2008.
On the outskirts of Villers-Bretonneux, at the very site of Hill 104, captured by the AIF, is the vast Commonwealth cemetery and Australian memorial where the main Anzac Day ceremonies are held. This is a sobering place, with its thousands of graves, and the 11,000 names engraved on the Memorial itself – the names of all those Australian soldiers who died in France but whose gravesite is unknown. Looking down from the tower of the Memorial over the gentle, tidy, and undulating Picardy countryside, and the sites of many battles—not only Villers-Bretonneux, but also such places as Sailly-sur-Sec, where the Red Baron was shot down, and Le Hamel where General Monash secured a brilliant and important victory on 4 July 1918, you also get a real sense of both the localised and hellish intensity of the fight, which had to doggedly retake village after village, but also of the courage not only of the soldiers but of the local population, who had to painstakingly rebuild ruined villages and townships.
In the village itself, at the French war memorial with its sad columns of names of locals killed in the Great War (including several civilians, killed in the shelling of the village), there were also wreaths from French and Australian organisations, including one from the Parliament and people of Australia. The Australian Government spends a lot of money not only maintaining the cemeteries and memorials scattered all around here (along of course with the French, and with other Commonwealth nations – Britain and Canada being well-represented here too though nowhere near to the extent of Australia) but also, as recently as 2008, renovating the Le Hamel site with very interesting explanatory displays which put Monash’s successful strategy into full and interesting context. It’s not purely a Government thing though – they are following a popular movement. Anzac Day ceremonies here have become bigger and bigger in recent years, as Australians learn more about the Western Front campaigns – including the fact that out of the 60,000 Australian soldiers killed in the First World War, 45,000 died on the Western Front – and more and more ordinary people make the pilgrimage to be there.