Every year on the 25th of April thousands of Australians turn out to honour the men and women who have fallen in battle while serving Australia in conflicts from the First World War onwards. As the numbers of returned servicemen dwindle the crowd of people turning up to commemorate their efforts has swelled. I myself have been witness to an ever growing crowd at my local dawn service over the last decade. The deeds of the Australian soldiers who fought in World War I have become increasingly important to the people of Australia today and more importantly the accomplishments of the men who fought on the Western Front are receiving greater attention than ever before. While Gallipoli may have been where the Anzacs first received their ‘baptism of fire’, it is on the Western Front that the Australian divisions truly made an impact on the war. In March and April of 1918 the Australian forces played a vital role in halting the advancing German army during their Spring Offensive. This defining moment in Australian history has proved significant not just to Australians but also to the people of France as well.
The German Spring Offensive was launched in March 1918 and quickly overran the British army on a 60 mile front and drove towards Amiens. The French forces fighting with the allies were all but destroyed. On March 25th, the 3rd and 4th Australian Divisions were ordered into the line. Their orders were to plug the gap between the advancing German army and Amiens. Many French people had been fleeing the advancing German army but upon seeing the Australians turned for home claiming ‘It is not necessary to leave now. Les Australians will hold them’. When Monash, the commander of the 3rd Australian Division, arrived at British headquarters he was greeted by General Congreve, Commander of VII Corp, who exclaimed “Thank heavens – the Australians at last”. For the next month the Germans continued to attack up and down the line while the Australian forces continually halted them in their tracks. On April 24th the Germans captured the town of Villers-Bretonneux. The decision was made that the Australians would attempt to retake the village immediately. On Anzac Day 1918 the Diggers charged with fixed bayonets screaming and hollering. They defeated the crack German troops who held the town and ensured an end to the German advance.
For the people of France, the actions of the Australian Diggers who fought and died during World War I has forever been etched into collective memory. The bond forged by those men so long ago is still very much alive today. The town of Villers-Bretonneux is the site of Australia’s main Western Front memorial for World War I. However, the town itself also serves as a memorial to the Diggers who fought there so long ago. The Victoria School was rebuilt after the war from donations collected by Victorian school children and the Victorian government. The school has the words ‘N’oublions jamais l’Australie’ – ‘Let Us Never Forget Australia’ emblazoned across a building in the playground and above every blackboard. To this day, students are still taught about the Australian soldiers who came from the other side of the world to defend their country and liberate their town. In 2010, the people of Villers-Bretonneux demonstrated the strength of the bond between our two nations when they raised $21, 000 for the bush fire appeal after the Black Saturday bushfires that devastated Victoria. A year later a group of students from Villers-Bretonneux visited one of the Victorian schools that had been destroyed and which their donation had helped to rebuild. When the Diggers retook Villers-Bretonneux they raised the French and Australian flags and to this day the Australian flag still flies over the town.
On Anzac Day 1918 the Australians retook the village of Villers-Bretonneux and fought their way into the hearts and minds of the people of France. For Australians, this is a significant moment in their history as their small, volunteer army achieved what the larger allied armies could not. Australian victory at Villers-Bretonneux turned the momentum of the German Offensive and showed the allied commanders what they were capable of. Villers-Bretonneux was not just a significant moment in Australian history but in French history as well. The growing crowds at Anzac Day services in Australia and France indicate that the bond forged by the Diggers almost a century ago is stronger than ever. The people of France remember the Australian Diggers who came from the other side of the world to fight for their freedom. They remember their spirit. They remember their generosity. They remember their never say die attitude. They remember them standing firm while others crumbled. They remember and they teach their children to remember.
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