Villers Bretonneux is in the Somme, a region of northern France. It is less than two hours from Paris, Brussels and London, a strategic position, particularly during a war. Some historians believe the battle fought there changed the course of WWI.
Australian soldiers were deployed to the Somme in their thousands and 52,000 lost their lives on the Western Front, which stretched from the coast of northern France and Belgium to the Swiss Alps.
Local gratitude in Villers Bretonneux is particularly strong, as Australian troops recaptured it from German forces. Part of the five Australian divisions, they arrived by rail from Belgium to prevent a German breakthrough. April 25, 2008 will be the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Amiens, as it is known to the locals.
Although many years have passed, residents are surrounded by reminders of Australia. While there was fierce fighting in Pozieres, Bullecourt, Mont St Quentin, Le Hamel and countless other sites, the major Australian memorial is at Villers Bretonneux.
The 32-metre Memorial Tower is overwhelming. Etched into the walls are the names of more than 11,000 Australian soldiers who have no known grave. There are 770 graves of Australian diggers, as well as other Commonwealth soldiers involved in the campaign.
The town's school was rebuilt with the help of donations from Victorian school children in the 1920s and carries a plaque in English and French: "This building is the gift of the school children of Victoria Australia to the school children of Villers Bretonneux, as a proof of the love and goodwill toward France. Twelve hundred Australian soldiers, the fathers and brothers of these children, gave their lives in the heroic recapture of this town 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."
The Musee Franco-Australien is on top of the school. It is a quiet but bright place devoted to telling the story of the Australians in France and Villers Bretonneux through photographs, documents, flags, uniforms and testimony. There is a collection of Australian memorabilia letters, photographs, battlefield souvenirs and a kangaroo mascot.
Wreath-laying ceremonies are held quite often in Villers Bretonneux, particularly around Anzac Day.
Bullecourt is a 40-minute drive from Villers Bretonneux. It was always a farming area and what were once battlefields are again being used for crops. As farmers till the land, shrapnel from WWI is brought to the surface.
Local resident Jean le Talle has turned his 25-year passion into a museum and his special interest is in Australian memorabilia.
Memorials for the fallen are dotted between the towns, villages and fields of the Somme and are popular spots for the many Australians who come here.
Military History Tours visit the battlefields where Australians and New Zealanders fought. Escorts are military historians, familiar with each of the battles. People join for a variety of reasons. Maybe they had family involved or just wish to understand the events.
Today the battlefields are tranquil places and imagination is needed to relive those ghastly days of fear and pain, flame and smoke, noise and the loss of so many lives.
There has never been a dawn service conducted at the Australian Memorial at the Somme, but the Australian Government recently announced that the first will be held on Anzac Day 2008 to commemorate the 90th anniversary.
Military History Tours will have five-night and 12-night Anzac Day tours in 2008, starting at $2995 and $4995 respectively per person twin-share. They start in Paris and include the Somme battlefields and the dawn service. Accommodation, most meals and all transfers are included.
Franco-Australian Museum entry is around $6 for adults and $4 for children. It is open between 10am-12:30pm and 2-6pm between Wednesday and Saturday, 2-6pm Sunday and Tuesday and closed on Monday.
Bullecourt War Museum entry is free but donations are very welcome.
Emirates has flights to Paris.
- Perth, $1973
- Melbourne, $2016
- Brisbane, $2017
- Sydney, $2031
Valid for sale until March 2008.
Prices quoted correct at July 19, 2007.
The Somme, around two hours from Paris.
For further information
Military History Tours
Level 1, 3-5 Baptist Street
Surry Hills 2010
Ph: (02) 9319 3007
Ph: 1300 364 671
Ph: 1300 303 777