Our French connection

PAYING TRIBUTE: Tourists and locals gather to remember the fallen at Villers-Bretonneux’s Anzac Day service.
PAYING TRIBUTE: Tourists and locals gather to remember the fallen at Villers-Bretonneux’s Anzac Day service. Michelle Buckman

THE gambling crowd moves closer and screams out in anticipation as the coins spin high in the air. Arms go up and they cheer at the result before another round frantically begins. This is "two-up" being played on Anzac Day in the northern French town of Villers-Bretonneux.

The atmosphere is buzzing. Men and women are gathered outside Le Forum Cafe drinking beer, playing two-up, kicking footballs, cheering and laughing.

We squeeze past and continue to the bar to order a couple of Australian beers.

Green and gold ribbons line Place du General de Gaulle and Rue de Melbourne.

Shopfronts overflow with koalas, kangaroos and Australian flags.

Hundreds of tourists and most of the 4000 locals have gathered here after attending the earlier Anzac Day dawn service. For the next few hours, grown men will play and consume plenty of beer.

Every Anzac Day, thousands gather for the dawn service at the Australian National Memorial located a few kilometres away.

The locals from this village and many Australians have formed a special bond that began more than 90 years ago.

"It's a real connection. It's part of our village life," explains Madame Annie Brassart of the Franco-Australien Association of Villers-Bretonneux on a YouTube clip of the 90th anniversary held in 2008.

On Anzac Day in 1918, Australian troops liberated this village from the Germans who had seized control only 24 hours earlier. The Germans were desperate to take control of the town of Amiens.

Whoever controlled Amiens controlled the supply routes to northern France where the Allied Forces were located. But first they had to take the town of Villers-Bretonneux.

They succeeded on April 24 and the Allied Forces knew they had to respond immediately.

Just after midnight on Anzac Day 1918, two Australian brigades with support from the British launched a counter-attack. A ferocious and bloody battle followed.

By the next day, 1200 Australian soldiers had died but Villers-Bretonneux was back under the control of the Allied Forces.

These are the men we came to remember. It is pitch black and absolutely freezing when we take our seats at the Australian National Memorial. The dawn service is about to begin.

Thousands of French and Australians are rugged up in beanies, coats and gloves. In the distance, I can hear the drums beating. The Australian flag flies proudly as military officers march ceremoniously to the front to lay wreaths.

Against the haunting sounds of the bugle playing the last post, heads are hung low, tears trickle down cheeks, men cough and noses are blown. Only the hardened can hold their composure.

Back at Villers-Bretonneux, we wave and clap the soldiers and relatives of those who had been lost, as they march to Place du General de Gaulle. After the town community service at the French War Monument, most of the Australians explore the village by foot.

L'Ecole Victoria (Victoria School) was inaugurated on Anzac Day 1927. The Victorian Department of Education and the school children of Victoria raised funds to rebuild the school that had been destroyed in the fighting. At the front of the school are two large plaques remembering the Australians who lost their lives liberating the town.

One is in English, the other in French. In the courtyard, a large sign in capital letters hangs on the awning and reads, "DO NOT FORGET AUSTRALIA."

"This was the first real tribute of Australia to us. All the wood panelling is made from pacific maple and all shipped from Australia. The sculptor John Grant sculpted all of these exotic animals. For us, they are exotic," explains Madame Annie Brassart.

"Melbourne was the town that adopted us after this terrible war and the town was totally destroyed, reduced to rubble on the ground. And so the Australians ... there is a big wave of generosity of Australians towards us because they lost so many of their sons on the ground.

"They wanted to make it into something worthwhile for the living."

Above a row of classrooms on the first floor is the Musee Franco Australien (Franco Australian Museum). The Franco Australien Association of Villers-Bretonneux maintains the museum.

It was created in 1975 and tells the history of the Australian troops during the First World War with particular emphasis on the Western Front in 1918.

It's quite a shock to be surrounded by so much of Australia in France.

The exhibition room has photos, firearms, uniforms, personal effects, letters and other pieces of history. There is a documentation area with books detailing Australian history and a 35-seat video room showing Australian war documentaries.

Gallipoli is widely recognised by most Australians but the story of Villers-Bretonneux is not well known. As more Australians attend the annual Anzac Day service, our awareness levels increase. In 1919, the Town Mayor of Villers-Bretonneux said, "... 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 ..."

The promise has been kept.

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Topics:  france travel travelling

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