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