Sunday, November 15, 2009

Remembrance Day at Villers-Bretonneux

On 25 April 1918, at a cost of over 1,200 of their lives, Australian soldiers repulsed a German force apparently ten times their number at Villers-Bretonneux, the last point of defence before Paris on the Western Front.  The citizens of this little town declared their eternal gratitude to these men in a moving speech by the mayor.  The primary school, rebuilt with money raised by schoolchildren from Victoria—called the Victorian School—has emblazoned above its blackboards, “N’oublions jamais l’Australie”—we will never forget Australia.  And they never have; ANZAC Day is observed religiously to this day.  They dub the town l’Australie en Picardie, and it has been called by Australians the Gallipoli of the Western Front.
Remembrance Day, once known as Armistice Day, the last day of “the Great War,” is a national holiday in France.  This and the last day of The Second World War are of great importance to the French, as so much of their soil was battleground.  On November 11th, we visited the Australian National Memorial outside Villers-Bretonneux.  Several groups of Aussies trod softly past the sombre rows of graves either side of the French and Australian flags to reach the tall, white tower flanked by two chapels and a memorial wall engraved with the names of the Australian fallen in the battles of the First World War.  While we were there a French family with three young ones also paid their respects, the parents gently reprimanding the children when they became too boisterous.  We gave them little koala bears.

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