N'oublions jamais l'australie

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Today Australia and New Zealand celebrate Anzac* Day, the day we commemorate those that fought for our countries in the great wars and all peace keeping conflicts since. The day usually starts very sombre as millions of Australians and New Zealanders attend dawn services through out the world to lay wreaths and let the haunting sounds of the 'Last Post' ripple through their hearts. Usually it finishes in an RSL* club to drink beer and play Two-up, a gambling game where people bet the results of two coins tossed in the air against one another, as it's the only day of the year unlicensed gambling of this kind is permitted.

For the previous two years I've had the opportunity to attend the Anzac Day dawn service at the Australian National Memorial just outside Villers-Bretenoux, a tiny village of a town 20 kilometers east of Amiens in the Somme region about two hours drive north of Paris. Unveiled in 1938, the Memorial lists the names of the 11,000 Australians that died in the surrounding country that have no known grave and encompasses a military cemetery for hundreds of fallen who fought on behalf of the British Empire.
Both expats living in Europe and Australians on a war history pilgrimages in France come together in their thousands to hear the stories of the men and women that gave their lives protecting their country as well as France for the French people. The service is broadcast live on Australian television networks and the minister of Foreign Affairs is always in attendence.
Situated on a hill, as you approach it in the dark, the monolith of a tower that rises in the middle of the memorial looks much taller than its 30 metres. Aided by a bright light shining upwards that can be seen from miles around, it acts as a beacon summoning those that have journeyed to pay their respects.

Attendees clambering to get a photo with former Australian Prime Minister and 2011 Minister of Foreign Affairs Kevin Rudd.

It was at Villers-Bretenoux in 1918, coincidentally on April 25, that the Australian contingent of the Allied Forces halted the German invasion by liberating the city for the local people. From that point onwards Germany proceeded no further into France during World War I and the Australians were heralded as heroes. Even today any Australian that finds him/herself in The Somme region may be bestowed with extra friendliness from the local townsfolk as the children are taught from a young age N'oublions jamais l'australie (never forget Australia), as this is what graces plaques and murals throughout their primary schools.

Australians are renowned for their camaraderie and spending the Anzac Day public holiday amongst family and friends after attending the local veterans service is both very humbling and uplifting. However, to be remembering those that bravely gave their lives on the very ground that they did so is an incredibly moving experience and one I'd highly recommend to anyone that finds themselves in the north of France at the end of April.

After the service the local people serve breakfast of tea/ coffee and croissants to all the 7000 odd attendees before most head into the town centre for more services.
For future information on the dawn service and subsequent services in the area keep your eye on the Somme Anzac site.

Photo: Diane Robertson Photography
Lest we forget.

*Anzac stands for 'Australian and New Zealand Army Corps'
*RSL stands for 'Returned Services League'

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