Villers-Bretonneux marked the final stop on our three-day Anzac battlefields tour. An Allied victory here in late April 1918 was demoralising for the Germans, and brought their spring offensive to a crashing halt. After the Germans had initially used tanks to take control of the town, the British and Australian troops successfully counter-attacked and drove the Germans back. This was Germany’s final offensive move, and from this point on its actions became defensive. German troops were exhausted from the spring offensive. Many brave young Australians lost their lives in the battle to regain control of Villers-Bretonneux.
The Australian National Memorial to the men who died fighting on the Western Front sits on a ridge just outside the town, offering views out over the lush farmlands of the Somme Valley. We walked among the now familiar white headstones, reading the names, ages and epitaphs of the young men. As we had come to expect, the lawns were mown, the garden beds well maintained, the flowers in bloom. Visitors moved silently through the rows of headstones. It was as peaceful and quiet as the other war cemeteries we had visited over the past three days.
We climbed the tower of the monument, which offered broad views across the rural landscape which had been so badly devastated by the war. Looking out over the green fields of wheat and yellow fields of canola, it was almost impossible to picture what it might have looked like one hundred years earlier. There is a small degree of damage to the tower from fighting in World War Two that has been left unrestored out of historical interest.
Behind the monument, the walls of which also bear the names of those who fell but were never identified and buried under their own names, is the Sir John Monash Centre, which opened during the Anzac Day commemoration of 2018. Unlike most museums, much of the story of the Australians here is told through huge video screens, some of which use added effects such as strobe lighting and smoke to create a sense of what it was like to be at war on the Western Front. We used apps on our phones to connect with different displays and see and hear the stories behind them. It is a fine addition to the Anzac remembrance trail for this theatre of the Great War, and we were really impressed with it.
Back in the village of Villers-Bretonneux, we paid a visit to the Franco-Australian Museum, which features photos and artefacts from the battle that was fought here. From a window in the museum we were able to look out over the Victoria School, which bears the words ‘Do Not Forget Australia’ on the shelter sheds. Similar signs are on each classroom wall at the school, which had been totally destroyed, then rebuilt in the 1920s using money collected by the schoolchildren of Victoria, who were each asked to contribute one penny towards its restoration.
Elsewhere in Villers-Bretonneux, the gratitude extended to the Australians for their sacrifice in saving the town was clear to see. Australian flags and images of kangaroos adorned houses, public buildings and shops. Large Anzac Day posters were on display in every window of the pharmacy. Streets were named after Australian places. Even the kebab shop had large kangaroos painted on its signs.
Our travels over the past three days had covered most of the major battle sites of the Australians on the Western Front. We left Villers-Bretonneux feeling proud of the young men who had fought for our nation and grateful for their sacrifice. We had witnessed the evidence that they will never be forgotten in this part of the world, and that their resting places will always be cared for in the peaceful farmlands of Belgium and northern France. Lest we forget.