This month, as we celebrate the 103rd anniversary of ANZAC DAY, another associated commemoration will be be held in France, marking the time when thousands more Australians fought and died in another Great War battle.
April 25, 2018 is the anniversary of the bloody Second Battle of Villers Bretenoux in northern France where a predominantly Australian force scored a crucial victory which was a major contributor to Germany’s overall defeat a few months later.
One hundred years after the event ,the new $100m John Monash Australian Interpretation Centre, attached to the Australian National Memorial and the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery, will be officially opened by the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
The Centre tells the story of Australia’s experience of the Western Front and Belgium during the First World War.
Named after Australia’s greatest war-time commander General Sir John Monash, who led the Australian Corps on the Western Front in 1918, the new Centre was built to encourage younger generations to remember this important chapter of his life.
The concept for the new Sir John Monash Centre,was unveiled on April 25, 2015 by then Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in what was described as one of Abbott’s “finest visions for Australia”.
“Gallipoli was a splendid failure but the Western Front was a terrible victory, and we should remember our victories as much as we remember our defeats,” said Mr Abbott when announcing the Sir John Monash Centre.
Mr Turnbull has invited Mr Abbott to attend the opening on the evening of April 24, a gesture which Abbott described as “gracious”.
The centre will be a focal point for many decades for the thousands of Australian and international tourists visiting France, many of whom have family links with the AIF troops and the more than 46,000 Australians who lost their lives on the Western Front, a death toll that dwarfs any other theatre in our history.
Opened in 1936, the majestic Australian National Memorial building, the main memorial to Australian military personnel killed on the Western Front during World War I, lists 10,773 names of soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force with no known grave who were killed between 1916, when Australian forces arrived in France and Belgium, and the end of the war.
The centre has been designed by the Cox Architecture firm, based in Sydney. It measures 1000 square metres and, partially buried, has a grassed ‘foreign field’ as its roof.
The Second Battle of Bretenoux occurred during the Germans massive offensive of March 1918 which was designed to win the war before US forces arrived in numbers.
The Germans broke through, threatening Amiens, and took Villers Bretenoux on April 24 only to be sent packing by an Australian dominated counter attack the next day, an operation hailed as one of the Australian Imperial Force’s finest efforts of the war.
An indication of the high esteem Australian soldiers were held by the locals is epitomised by the way fleeing townsfolk turned around and headed home once they saw the Australians moving forward.
The locals never forgot how the Australians saved them and a sign “DO NOT FORGET AUSTRALIA” still looks down on the playground of the Victoria School.
A museum extolling the bond between the town and Australia is on the first floor of the school.