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France 1918: Defence of Amiens
Villers-Bretonneux, Australian National Memorial
Australia’s tower keeps watch
On 22 July 1938, barely a year before the outbreak of World War II, King George VI of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, gazed out over the wide fields of the Somme from a podium in front of the tower at the Australian National War Memorial at Villers–Bretonneux. This was the last of the great British Empire and Commonwealth World War I memorials to be built in France and Belgium. Beside the King was his wife, Elizabeth Bowes–Lyon, whose brother, Captain Fergus Bowes–Lyon was killed at the Battle of Loos in France in 1915. Also present were Albert Lebrun, President of France, and Earl Page, Deputy Prime Minister of Australia. To the great crowd assembled in the grassed area in front of the memorial the King, whose words were being broadcast directly to Australia, spoke of the Australian soldiers, airmen and nurses commemorated at Villers–Bretonneux:
On this monument is an inscription telling us and others who will visit this hill in the years to come, that it perpetuates the memory of the Australian Imperial Force in France and Flanders, and of 11,000 of them who fell in France and have no known grave.
King George VI, speech, The Times, London, 23 July 1938
The King’s speech reinforced a view that many in Australia had formed from the nation’s involvement in the ‘Great War’ and of the price paid in suffering and sacrifice on the battlefields of the Western Front and Gallipoli. That bloodletting had, emphasised the King, allowed the new Commonwealth to pass from ‘youth to manhood’ and to take its ‘rightful place in the community of nations’. From where he spoke the King could see the rows of graves in the Villers–Bretonneux War Cemetery, through which all who come to the memorial have to pass, and finished his speech with these words:
They rest in peace, while over them all Australia’s tower keeps watch and ward.
Then the King turned towards the great tower of the memorial with its encompassing walls on which are engraved the names of the missing and the battle honours of the First AIF. At that moment a large Australian flag fell away to reveal a doorway to the tower and inscriptions in both English and French:
GLORY OF GOD
NO KNOWN GRAVE
From the top of the tower the view is over the rolling countryside of the Somme towards Amiens and its cathedral which the AIF helped to defend in 1918. On a circular plaque are arrows pointing to other Australian battlefields on the Western Front and to far away Canberra, Australia’s capital city. At the bottom of the interior stairs, leading to the top of the tower, a large wall plaque displays a map of the Western Front and the location of the five Australian divisional memorials in France and Belgium: First Division, Pozières; Second Division, Mont St Quentin; Third Division, Sailly–le–Sec; Fourth Division, Montbrehain; and Fifth Division, Polygon Wood, Belgium.
After King George VI had officially unveiled the memorial President Lebrun spoke. The President well understood the destruction and loss caused by war. Between 1919 and 1921 he had held the portfolio in the French government for the ‘Ministry for the Devastated Regions’. Clearly visible to all at this ceremony, over the fields to the right, was the town of Villers–Bretonneux which had been devastated by both German and Allied action in April 1918. Lebrun emphasised that they had gathered to remember the Anzacs who ‘in April, May, June, July and August 1918 took such a heavy part in the operations before Amiens’:
Twenty years have gone by; once again the wheat ripens upon this earth, drenched in their blood. The tortured grass grows once more upon these fields … The pilgrimage which we have just made between the double ranks of their tombs up to the Temple which looks over them moves us to the very depths of our being.
Moreover, Lebrun said, Australia had chosen to erect this memorial on the ‘very ground of their exploits’. On the night of 24–25 April 1918, three years after the ‘Landing’ at Gallipoli, Australian soldiers had moved up over fields, now occupied by the cemetery and the memorial, to recapture Villers–Bretonneux from the Germans.
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010