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France 1918: Defence of Amiens
Villers-Bretonneux, Australian National Memorial
Your memory will always be kept alive
– the town of Villers-Bretonneux
By 25 April 1918 Villers–Bretonnneux resembled many other devastated towns and villages along the Western Front in France and Belgium. The houses of the poor as well as the châteaux of the wealthy lay roofless and looted; public buildings, some of them medieval in origin, were gutted and useless; and ancient churches were ruins where the sacred statues and icons mingled with broken stained glass, fallen masonry and charred wood. Somehow it was the churches, emblematic of European civilisation, that caught the eye of the official photographers and war artists of all nations; the empty shells of these buildings were dramatic symbols of what war had brought to Villers–Bretonneux and hundreds of other places like it.
The inhabitants of the town gradually came back. They were in no doubt who had won their homes back for them, contrary to a British official report which stated that ‘the brilliant idea of the III Corps for the recapture of Villers–Bretonneux was ably carried out by the 8th Division, assisted by the 13th and 15th Australian Infantry Brigades’.
Just over a year after that famous 1918 Anzac Day when the AIF entered the town, on France’s national day, 14 July 1919, the people of Villers–Bretonneux showed their gratitude. A special plaque, now in the Australian War Memorial’s Western Front Gallery, was unveiled and presented to the members of an Australian Graves Detachment which was still working at Villers–Bretonneux. In handing over the plaque the mayor spoke of the now firm connection between his town and that distant continent which few of its inhabitants had ever seen:
The first inhabitants of Villers–Bretonneux to re–establish themselves in the ruins of what was once a flourishing little town have, by means of donations, shown a desire to thank the valorous Australian Armies, who with the spontaneous enthusiasm and characteristic dash of their race, in a few hours chased an enemy ten times their number … Soldiers of Australia, whose brothers lie here in French soil, be assured that your memory will always be kept alive, and that the burial places of your dead will always be respected and cared for.
Since 1919, the memory of the Australian contribution to Villers–Bretonneux has indeed been ‘kept alive’. The town was adopted by the City of Melbourne and funds collected to help with its reconstruction. Victorian schoolchildren raised money towards the rebuilding of the local school which has ever since been known as the ‘L’Ecole Victoria’ (Victoria School). In the school building is the ‘Franco–Australian Museum’ which houses a range of materials dealing with the Australian connection with the town both during the war and into more recent times. And, since 1919, the men and women of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, on behalf of Australia and all the other countries of the old British Empire and Commonwealth who lost soldiers and airmen in the battles around Villers–Bretonneux, have carefully tended and looked after the war cemeteries and memorials which dot the region.
But of all those determined to immortalise the memory of the Australians at Villers–Bretonneux none was more determined than Australia’s official historian, Charles Bean. On 24 July 1918, with artist John Longstaff, he went to Villers–Bretonneux to try to salvage the remains of a room from a typical house in the town. On that day the enemy mustard gas still clung to the buildings of Villers–Bretonneux so Bean returned on 28 July again with Longstaff, but also accompanied by Hubert Wilkins, the photographer, and Lieutenant Syd Gullett of the Australian War Records Section. While Gullett and Wilkins struggled to remove the contents of the room – a wardrobe, window frames, tiles, the paper ceiling, the wallpaper, discarded German military gear and much else – Longstaff did a painting of the outside of the house. Wilkins then photographed everything and Bean and Gullett made sketches. Bean wanted to reconstruct this room for exhibiting at his planned Australian War Memorial to the AIF back in Australia. A ruined room of someone’s home in Villers–Bretonneux, Bean felt, would convey better than anything else to the people of Australia what their loved ones had been fighting and dying for so far from their own homes.
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010