Anzac Day at Villers Brettoneux

Today was a day of records for us in many senses.

The first, and most significant was attending the first ever dawn service at the Australian Memorial at Villers Brettoneux.

In the spring offensive of 1918, the German army surged forward, capturing over 40 miles in an attempt to take the strategic city of Amiens. The British and french armies were in retreat and morale was at an all time low as the allies had now lost land over which hundreds of thousands of lives had been lost in fighting over the previous years. The Australians were moved down from Belgium to defend this area. Villers Brettoneux was recaptured on Anzac Day in 1918 in a battle in which was led by the 13th and 15th Brigades. This included the 57th Battalion, my grandfather’s unit. (He was wounded, but survived, in action a few days after Anzac Day). The Allies went on from here to push the Germans further back to the east until the armistice was eventually called in November of 1918. In the action in this area,Australia probably had more influence on the outcome of world history than at any other time. The memorial is on the site of a part of this battle.

The people of Villers Brettoneux vowed to never forget Australia. The main street is named Rue Australie and at the intersection of Rue Melbourne is the Victoria School which was rebuilt from donations of pennies offered by Victorian school children. For 90 years now, the people of this town have kept their promise and it is incredibly humbling to visit. There is evidence of Australia everywhere – the Kangaroo Bar, pictures of wombats in the pharmacy and carvings of Australian wildflowers in the panelling of the walls in the school hall.

The service started at 5.15 and we had to leave our hotel in Arras (85 kms away) at 2.45 am. (This in itself was something of a record for me). Fortunately, I had my mobile phone which has an integrated GPS and it led us down a series of country roads and through sleeping villages without any trouble at all.We didn’t see another car until we were within a few kilometres of the memorial. We arrived just before 4 am and were directed to park by the side of the road by the gendarmes, leaving us with a walk olf just over 1 kilometre.

The memorial is at the top of a gentle hill and after entering through the gates from the road, we had an eerie walk through the cemetery, up to the floodlight memorial. On the walls that form a large central courtyard are the names of all the Australians who fought in France who have no known grave p thousands of them!. In the centre is a lall tower, which  formed the focal point for the service. It was a very emotional time. The weather was cold and this gave us something of an idea as to what it would have been like during the time of the battle. The service was very well organised. The main address was presented by the Australian Minister for Veterans Affairs and he spoke superbly. I spent the whole time of the service with an enormous lump in my throat!

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After the service, we drove down to the town. The Gendarmeri had the streets closed off, so we had to park a little way out of the centre of the town and walk down to the school.

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It was here that we came across our second record for the day – the largest tour group that we ever seen! We were hoping to have a look inside the school, but it was closed for a breakfast catering for over 800 Australian official guests and a large tour group. The tour group of 750 Australians were transported in 20 coaches which just blocked the entire town. No wonder the police had closed off the streets. (Imagine getting 750 people booked into a hotel in the one evening). WE came across this group at another time during the day and decided to retreat as discretion is the better part of valour.

We left Villers Brettoneux at about 9 m after a coffee in a bar with a small group of five Australian service people. They wee on leave from their operations in Australia, Iraq and UK. They were a wonderful group of Australian ambassadors – clean cut, polite, well mannered and conversational.

On the way back to Arras, we stopped at a number of other interesting places. The first these ws the village of Dernancourt. This village was attacked by the Germans in the spring offensive, overwhelming Australian forces. Nearly 430 Australians are buried in the local war cemetery. We found a simple wreath and flowers from a group from Adelaide at the local village memorial.

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From there, we went into Amiens to visit the tourist information centre to see if we could find some more war related information. It was interesting to see such a big city, but we discovered that we were pretty well armed with information already and they had nothing to add to our knowledge base.I did manage to take a few photos of the cathedral here, which is bigger than the cathedral of Sacre Coeur in Paris.

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Our final stop was at the village of BUllecourt, one of the most famous place names in the history of the AIF. In two great battles in 1917, cost the lives of more than 10,000 men from four divisions. The village was incorporated into the defences of the Hindenburg Line- a zig-zag pattern of deep trenches which were protected by massive belts of barbed wire, dugoutsand machine gun posts. The battles here included the use of the new technology of the day – tanks. These were first used in battle at Fleurs, but it wasn’t until 1918 at Le Hamel, that General Monash was able to get tanks, artillery, infantry and aircraft to coordinate together effectively.

Just outside the town is the Australian memorial. We arrived just before the large tour group and beat a hasty retreat just as they were arriving. It was here that we encountered what I thought was our third record of the day when I asked an Australian Colonel and Brigadier if I could photograph them next to the statue of the Australian digger. In that way, I would have two real live diggers with the one on the memorial. The first thing that they did on agreeing to this request, was to adjust each others dress uniforms. To see a Brigadier tightening the belt of a Colonel was quite amusing – I thought that sort of things only happened to lowly privates like I was when i was in National Service.

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From here, it was back to Arras for lunch and a snooze to make up for lost sleep.

8 comments

  1. Trudi · ·

    I had tears in my eyes reading this. The enormity of the losses is beyond belief.
    Looked for you all on TV on Anzac Day, but would you believe, I couldn’t see you! Despite this it was good, as well as very dark.

  2. 'Trina · ·

    Bruce, I’m not sure if you got to VB in ’04 but after we were at the Menin Gate in ’05, I can only inagine what the service must have been like. Cold in temperature and so very very emotional, we were with you in Spirit. Didn’t see you in the TV footage. safe travelling

  3. Just read your Anzac Day experience. It would have been very moving. I’ve never been at this time of year, but shall never forget my first sight of all those white crosses in the many War Cemetaries in France and Belgium, stretching as far as the eye could see. The sheer numbers are almost incomprehensible. I am amazed, Bruce, that you have time to find a computer and write all this!

  4. Elizabeth · ·

    Bruce, my brother John Down from North Balwyn has forwarded your blog to me to read, knowing that my husband Gordon and I had travelled from Oxford, UK, where we are currently living,to make the same pilgrimage that you describe so well.On our return to England, I also fely compelled to put it all down in words for those back home.Being amongst those 5000 Australians at the Villers-Brettoneux dawn service made us feel very proud(as well as bl..dy cold!We did our circuit of the Somme and all the cemeteries and museums prior to Anzac day, so we thankfully missed all the busloads(though we counted 50 buses outside the Memorial that night!)We visited Amiens after the service and bumped into a rather lonely looking Joe Hockey, who was pleased to have someone recognise him and have a chat, we think.

  5. Jenni · ·

    It’s good keeping up with the news and the travels.
    Wow, imagine being part of a 750 strong tour group – that’s double the size of my kids’ primary school!
    Three records in one day – you’ve raised the bar this time guys!

  6. Bill Roberts · ·

    We are in awe of the incredible experiences you are all having and enjoy your progress reports. It so good to ‘share’ it with you. Thanks!

  7. Leigh Dunn · ·

    Sue Shannon and I also included the dawn service in our travels as well as the church service the same day in the village. It was such a moving experience and really gave us a much better appreciation of the deprivation experienced. We spent several days touring the area visiting the cemeteries and attending the Menin Gate ceremony. The museum at Albert is worth a visit as is the new Wellington museum at Arras. We also went to the Saturday service at memorial the village holds and found that very moving. We left two slouch hats our friends had asked us to pass on to someone appropriate rather than take them home and were pleased to be able to give one to the President of the Franco Australian Association and the other to the VB mayor who seemed very happy to have them. It truly was a memorable experience.

  8. I enjoyed reading your description. My uncle Arthur Finley died at V-B in the first battle of the Somme in 1916. I have been contemplating a visit to V-B as a memorial to Arthur. He was my mother’s only sibling & she mourned him all her life. I hesitate to make the trip since the large numbers of tourists from your account appear daunting. Thanks for the tale of your experiences. Peter