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It is the 25th April, and a German man and his wife from Munich are taking a motoring holiday to the South of France. They pass through the northern French city of Amiens. They observe much gaiety among the populace and are wondering what it is all about. 

They pass through the city and 15kms down the road they approach a small town. On the outskirts, they pass a cemetery which has a sign “Adelaide Cemetery”. 

Says the man, " that is not a French name. What does it mean? " 

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They enter the little town which is bedecked with flags and the people are in a state of uncontrolled rapture. The flags are the French tricolour and another strange flag. They stop a man on the steps of the town hall and ask,  " Monsieur,pardon, sil vous plait, "  in his best tourist French. " What is all the excitement about and what is this other flag, the blue one with the English flag in the corner and the little white stars like a constellation from the heavens? And also, what was that place at the entrance to your town that says “Adelaide Cemetery? "

The man on the steps of the town hall replied

" That is the flag of Australia. We are celebrating today because it was today, in 1918, that the Australians stopped the German army.

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The man from Munich was stunned. 

The Frenchman, who has told the Munich man that he is the mayor of the town,  went on to say " The Australian army did not just stop the German army, it stopped it stone-cold dead and sent them packing right back to Germany with their tail between their legs. They were thrashed by the best army in the world. The German army ran away. They saved France and they saved the world. That cemetery you saw was where they buried their dead soldiers. "

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Amiens Cathedral, France - Don't Forget The Diggers

That little scene depicts the scene at Villers Bretonneau on the 25th April every year where they celebrate the defeat of the German army by the actions of the 13th,14th&15thbrigades led respectively by Brigadier General Pompey Elliott and Brigadier General Tom Glasgow.

 

Villers Bretonneux is just a short train trip east from Amiens in beautiful green fields on a rise overlooking the River Somme valley. Here on the 4th Anzac Day, April 25th 1918, Australian troops retook the town from occupying German troops who stormed it 24 hours earlier.

Following the revolution in 1917, Russia withdrew from the war. That released about one million troops available to be transferred to the western front. At the same time it became apparent to the Germans that the entry of the USA into the war represented a very serious threat. Europe was running out of men and the potential addition of 5 million extra troops on the allied side was an almost fatal advantage.

To nip this in the bud, Ludendorff, the German military commander, .initiated the “Spring Offensive with the aim, among others, of capturing the city of Amiens which was a critical railway junction.

On 17th April he launched his attack, with tanks, which made large and rapid gains. The Germans captured the town of Villers Bretonneau (VB), a few miles east of Amiens. The town was largely defended by British infantry and tank regiments and the French Moroccan Division.

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The British units failed to hold the Germans or succeed in a counterattack. The Australians, acting on their own initiative circled the town and drove the Germans back but suffered heavy casualties. A VC was awarded to Lt. Clifford Sadlier of the 51st Battalion (Far North Queensland Regiment). The town was captured and never again regained by the Germans.

The adulation of the townsfolk was totally directed to the Australians. The British army had failed in their eyes, the French Moroccan Battalion joined well with the Australians and saved them from a flanking attack the next day which went largely unrecognised.

In May, John Monash was appointed commander in chief of the Australian Corps. In July, 1918 he embarked on the attack of the German army in the Battle of Le Hamel with a tank strategy that had not been used before. In his battle plan he estimated that it would take 90 minutes to rout the Germans. He did it in 93.

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When Monash was appointed to command the Australian Corps he told the British establishment that he wanted all Australian units to be assembled together, given a sector of the front and he would “run the war his way”.

Following the Battle of Hamel, the French President, George Clemenceau, who had a practice of visiting the French front lines each week, instead, came to congratulate Monash personally on his stunning victory.

King George V came across to France and knighted Monash in the field. It was the first time that this had happened in 200 years. From there, the Australians, together with the Canadians rolled up the German Army and the mopping up was left to the British and Americans after the Australians were withdrawn from the line after 5 months of continuous fighting.

 

If you want to know who won WW1, ask a Frenchman.

The Adelaide Cemetery on the outskirts of VB is an Australian burial ground. After the immediate conflicts had passed, the initial internment of Australian casualties was added to by bringing in the remains of soldiers killed and buried at numerous smaller burial sites in France. It is now the resting place of Australian casualties and is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. From the initial 90 graves when the cemetery was first commissioned for the 1st& 2nd Divisions, there are now 960. In 1993, the remains of an unknown soldier were exhumed and transferred to Australia at the instigation of PM Paul Keating. They now lie in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

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Tom Glasgow, after the war, was elected to the Senate and served in the cabinet holding a succession of portfolios. In 1939 he was appointed Australia’s first ambassador to Canadas. He died in Brisbane on 4th July, 1955.

Pompey Elliott was a highly regarded soldier but never obtained his potential because he was openly critical and, indeed, contemptuous, of the British establishment’s conduct of the war. In particular, he crossed swords with Haig when he assessed that the distance to be covered in no-man’s land at the Battle of Fromelles was an impossible assignment. Haig’s Chief of Staff agreed but Haig was not persuaded.

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After the war he returned to Melbourne in June 1919 and on the day of his arrival he was dismissed from the AIF. He then entered the federal parliament and served two terms. He then became the solicitor for the City of Melbourne. Elliott was obsessed with the grief of how many men under his command had been needlessly sent to their deaths. In February, 1931 he was admitted to the Alfred Hospital suffering from what, today, would be called PTSD. In March he was transferred to a private hospital where he committed suicide by slashing himself with a razor.

Villers Bretonneau is the site of the Australian War Memorial in France.

 

The 90th anniversary Anzac Day Dawn Service at the Australian WW1 Memorial on a hill beside Villers Bretonneux in France.

In 1923, a group Australian soldiers started a campaign to raise funds to rebuild the school at Villers Bretonneau which was destroyed in the battle. Over four years they achieved their goal and the Victoria School was established. The funds were largely raised by donations from Victorian school children in a penny drive. It remains today as an enduring symbol of the admiration that the people of northern France have for Australia. One room is called The Victoria Room. It is decorated with wood carvings of Australian fauna produced by students of Daylesford Technical School.

 The Victoria School Anzac Museum, part of a 60 minute documentary called 'The Anzac Connection', looking at the relationship between Australians and the small French village of Villers Bretonneux, forged by Anzacs in WW1

The Murray River town of Robinvale has a twinning arrangement with Victoria School. Prominently displayed at the entrance to the school is a banner which says “NEVER FORGET AUSTRALIA”.

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If you ever decide to make a visit to that part of the world (I have been there three times), make sure you take a large box of Kleenex.

Lest We forget

 

 

 

 

 

 

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