April 25, 2008

Lest We Forget (2)

Today is ANZAC Day, and although I have already posted about participating in this year's march on behalf of my grandmother, I want to commemorate the actual day by mentioning a memorial service I am watching live from France.

As I write this, several friends and thousands of my countrymen are in Villers-Bretonneux for the 90th Anniversary of a landmark battle of World War One.

From an article by journalist Stephanie Kennedy, published today
"The assault began at 10pm on 24 April. It was a do-or-die attack. The diggers took out the German machine guns then fought the enemy in a ferocious house-to-house confrontation. One German officer later wrote that the Australians 'were magnificent, nothing seemed to stop them. When our fire was heaviest, they just disappeared in shell holes and came up as soon as it slackened.'

By dawn on 25 April, exactly three years after the Anzacs stormed ashore at Gallipoli, the Australians had broken through the German positions and the French and Australian flags were raised over Villers-Bretonneux. It took the rest of the day and into the next to secure the town. But secure it they did and the Anzacs established a new front line, marking the end of the German offensive on the Somme. A British General called the Anzac attack 'perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war'.

But it came at a huge cost for Australia. 1200 died saving the village.

The French, though, have never forgotten the sacrifice. The Australian flag still flies over Villers-Bretonneux. A plaque outside the Town Hall tells the story of events in the town in 1918. Kangaroos feature over the entrance to the Town Hall. The main street is named Rue de Melbourne.

The children of Villers-Bretonneux are especially indebted to Australia. After the war, it was money donated from schoolchildren in Victoria that paid for the rebuilding of the village school. It was named Victoria School and a plaque recalls the diggers' sacrifice:
'Twelve hundred Australian soldiers, the fathers and brothers of these children, gave their lives in the heroic recapture of this town from the invader on 24th April 1918 and are buried near this spot. May the memory of great sacrifices in a common cause keep France and Australia together forever in bonds of friendship and mutual esteem.'

Emblazoned across a building in the main playground of Victoria School and above the schools blackboards are the words 'DO NOT FORGET AUSTRALIA'. Carvings of kangaroos, koalas and platypuses decorate the school hall. Ninety years after the historic battle, the children of Villers-Bretonneux continue to learn about the soldiers from half a world away who liberated their town from the German enemy."

Please pause, and remember them.

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