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Villers-Bretonneux: let us never forget – commemorating the Australian war effort

This article is a member contribution by member Matt Harvey.

MyFrenchLife™ - MyFrenchLife.org – Villers-Bretonneux: let us never forget – commemorating the Australian war effortOn 25 April 2018
, the centenary ANZAC Day commemoration honoured the famous second battle of Villers-Bretonneux. It was during this battle that the Australians were to change the direction of the war forever. Let us not forget Villers-Bretonneux.

I recently got back from the ANZAC Day commemoration in France – including meeting Prince Charles. I was full of francophilia and thoughts about improving the Franco-Australian relationship.

I have been visiting Villers-Bretonneux since 1994 and have always dreamed of setting up an Australian Academic Centre there.

So, I am now faced with the reality of the new $100 million Sir John Monash Centre, offering a harrowing interactive experience,  commemorating the ANZAC experience of the Western Front.

It’s not quite what I had in mind – but it’s a lot better than nothing!

Villers-Bretonneux: the museum at the school

However, I hope that the tour guides won’t just go to the Centre and the Australian War Memorial, bypassing the village of Villers-Bretonneux altogether.

But it is a sufficient enough attraction to be a challenge to Villers-Bretonneux itself.

When there was only the War Memorial (outside the village), the attractions of Villers-Bretonneux were clearer:

  • Foremost is the school, built in the Victorian style with the donations of Victorian school children. Australians will never forget the signs there saying, ‘Never Forget Australia’
  • Also, there’s the rue Melbourne and other street names
  • The Museum which is at the school has had a makeover with Australian money. It charges €6 entry, whereas the Monash Centre is free

MyFrenchLife™ - MyFrenchLife.org – Villers-Bretonneux: let us never forget – commemorating the Australian war effort

The Museum has retained its charm despite the makeover and is now well placed to be the museum of the relationship between Villers-Bretonneux and Australia, leaving the Sir John Monash Centre to concentrate on the war itself and the Australian contribution.

There is, however, the danger that the Museum will simply be outgunned.

Forging connections: the people

But the most important connection is with the people. We must never forget them.

I am lucky to have friends in Villers-Bretonneux. My initial approach in 1994 was to make an appointment to see the mayor, then M. Lelieur. He introduced me to Michele and Didier Abraham.

Michele was a local pharmacist. Michele and Didier have been very hospitable to visiting Australians. Thanks to them, I have never had to find accommodation, which is just as well – as there is none!

When I first visited in 1994, there was the Hotel Victoria. I dreamed of buying it for my Academic Centre, but I had no money.

The tables were set for lunch, but it seemed to have been closed for some time. Eventually, it was demolished, and houses have since been built on the site. It may be that there is not sufficient demand for a commercial hotel to be viable.

After all, Amiens is only 18km away and has abundant accommodation. However, it would be great to have an Australian guesthouse, at least.

Villers-Bretonneux: let us never forget

Villers-Bretonneux (with a population of 4,000+) is twinned with Robinvale in North-Western Victoria. While this is an appropriate twinning, Robinvale only has a population of 2,000, so it is difficult to sustain a strong relationship.

But Villers-Bretonneux also has strong links with Melbourne and Victoria, more generally. Nearly a century on, some of those links may have slackened. But anyone who has attended a Victorian State School will feel their heart flutter when they see the school in Villers-Bretonneux.

I hope many of the 8,000 who attended the centenary ANZAC Day commemoration this year will come back and also recommend it to others.

It is a great place to be an Australian – any Australian who visits will never forget it – just as they will never forget us. So, let us never forget Villers-Bretonneux!


Have you ever been to Villers-Bretonneux? Do you think it’s an important aspect of Franco-Australian heritage? We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments in the box below.


 

READER CONTRIBUTIONS

 

This article was contributed by reader-member Matt Harvey – thank you Matt.

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Image credits
1. Villers-Bretonneux mémorial australien via wikip\edia
2. Sir John Monash Centre via sjmc.gov.au
3. Villers-Bretonneux School playground via article John Hood AC
4. ANZAC veteran via wikipedia

 



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3 Comments

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  1. Jan Leishman
    2 weeks ago

    I have been to both the town and the cemetery – not the new centre. However as my father fought there and his older brother is buried at Villers Bretonneux, I find the place so personal that it hurts. I do not want to be there when there are crowds of people – often a generation or two away from those who served. I see my dad, as a 19-year-old volunteer, and his older brother – both farm boys from South Australia ‘on an adventure’ which turned out to be hell for both – my father became a POW and my uncle was killed. What they went through is something I have grown up with. For me, that ground is too sacred to be shared, despite the genuine interest of other Australian tourists.


    • Judy MacMahon
      2 weeks ago

      Jan, thank you for sharing your family history in relation to Villers-Bretonneux. I’m very appreciative of Matt sharing his experience and thought about what’s happening there recently.
      Judy


  2. Matt Harvey
    2 weeks ago

    Thanks Jan and Judy for these comments. Visiting a grave and reflecting on the experience of a family member is very different from commemorating with 8,000 fellow Australians! I discovered Villers before I discovered that my grandfather had served there – and survived. I feel a generally Australian connection as well as that personal connection. Now I have a personal connection to Villers too and have seen ANZAC Day become a huge event but also the town increasingly becoming a dormitory suburb of Amiens. The ties of the school to Australia are excellent but it would be good to strengthen connections apart from on ANZAC Day.