Travel

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.

>> Read more travel stories.

Topics:  france, travel, travelling




Is this the start of our Rural Renaissance?

Exports to the US have dropped 40%, China 30% and Japan 10%. China and Saudi Arabia have once more open their doors to Brazilian beef while Indonesia is now looking to Indian buffalo meat to boost its supplies

Rising prices the talk of the town as rain raises farmers’ spirits

Jo-Ann Miller speech leaves ALP faithful stunned

STILL STRONG: Member for Bundamba Jo-Ann Miller MP at her Goodna office.

MP sticks to her guns at closed Labor conference

Latest deals and offers

MOVIE REVIEW: Life on the Road

Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey Smith and Foregone Conclusion (Steve Clarke, Andy Burrows, Stuart Baxter Wilkinson, Michael Clarke) in a scene from David Brent: Life on the Road.

Ricky Gervais has brought David Brent back to life on the big screen

Jessica Alba wants tequila shots served at her funeral

Businesswoman and actor Jessica Alba

There won't be mourning at this funeral

Tom Hiddleston's Instagram account hacked

Actor Tom Hiddleston

Thor star the latest celebrity targetted by hackers

Charlize Theron's son dresses up as Frozen character

Actor Charlize Theron

Star's son spotted dressed a beloved Frozen character

BOOKS: Food for thought in Caroline Beecham's latest novel

Maggie's Kitchen by Caroline Beecham is published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99.

New novel reminds readers that bravery exists in many forms

REVEALED: Pat Rafter's $18m Coast house on the market

Check out the photos of the Coast's most expensive property for sale

The "correction we had to have" in Gladstone's rentals

UPWARD MARCH: The rental vacancy rate in Gladstone has improved for the first time in more than a year, providing a confidence boost in the market.

Vacancy rates improve with signs that things are getting betterF

ISLAND FOR SALE: Cheap Fraser Coast island drops price again

Suna Island in the Great Sandy Strait will be auctioned by Ray White Hervey Bay on Saturday morning.

This is the cheapest island you will find for sale in Australia

How a family home can fit on a 250sq m block

This is what you can build on 250m2.

Here's the floor plan of a home built on 250sq m

$100m plan for Curtis Island 'world class' luxury resort

$100 million resort: Top views at Turtle Street at Curtis Island.

"At the moment we think it meets all the town planning approvals.”

Noosa mayor on "red alert" over planning court decision

Mayor Tony Wellington hands down his first budget.

Mayor upset at lack of say about look and feel of Noosa