Living literally on the other side of the world, France really is a long way from my roots in Australia. Modern technology helps reduce that distant feeling, letting me stay in touch easily with family and friends. But when I think of the Australians who fought wars in Europe, it’s difficult to imagine just how far away they felt.
The serene lawn of a war cemetery and memorial grows on the outskirts of the French village of Villers-Bretonneux. Surrounded by green fields, the Australian National Memorial is now peacefully quiet. However, it’s on this very hill that the soldiers battled to win back the town from the Germans. Success was looking likely by the early hours of 25th April 1918 (coincidentally, the same day as the Gallipoli offensive started in 1915 — now commemorated annually as ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand). By 26th April, Villers-Bretonneux was back in French hands, with many lives lost in the process.
The cemetery and the monument were completed just a few years before the Second World War, and it suffered damage in the subsequent crossfire. Bullet marks are still visible on some buildings. The memorial commemorates the 10,765 Australians who died in the region. Of those casualties, the cemetery contains the graves of 779 Australian solders, plus 1089 British, 267 Canadians, four South Africans and two New Zealanders.
The memorial is sobering, and reading some of the gravestones is difficult. One mentioned that the soldier’s distant parents would never be able see the grave. However, the town of Villers-Bretonneux has embraced the Australians’ victory by renaming streets, schools and businesses with Australian names. After the battle, the village was adopted by the Australian city of Melbourne, which collected funds to help rebuild the village. The spirit of Australia is something I never thought I’d find in the middle of France, but it most definitely exists.