Dignitaries and descendants of First World War soldiers converged just outside the small French town of Villers-Bretonneux on 24 April for the official opening of the Sir John Monash Centre.
The ceremony was timed to coincide with Anzac Day commemorations and the Centenary of the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux.
Guests included the Prime Minister of Australia Malcolm Turnbull, the Prime Minister of France Édouard Philippe, and descendants of those who fought on the Western Front.
Among the descendants were Michael Bennett, the great-grandson of Sir John Monash.
Prime Minister Turnbull said the Sir John Monash Centre acknowledges more than 295,000 men and women who served on the Western Front in the First World War – and the defence personnel of today who continue to fight for Australia’s values and interests.
“Australians are hardly militaristic. … Anzac Day, does not commemorate a military victory. The Gallipoli campaign was a tragic and costly failure. We honour instead a triumph of the human spirit; courage, solidarity, resilience and above all mateship,” Mr Turnbull said.
“But while we are never triumphalist, we should never forget the triumphs of arms won by the Australian forces in the midst of all the horrors here of the Great War.
“And here at the village of Villers-Bretonneux – exactly one century ago – with that Anzac spirit and the brilliant leadership of John Monash the Australian forces won a momentous victory – the first of many in 1918.
“To truly appreciate John Monash, and more than 46,000 Australians who gave their lives for us out here on the Western Front – we need to stretch the boundaries of our imagination and see this landscape as they did.
“From the perfect geometry of these freshly-sown fields, and the immaculate lines of cottages in the village, we have to conjure up the smell and sound and fury of what was one of the greatest artillery bombardments in the history of warfare.”
Mr Turnbull shared an account from one of the 10,700 men whose name was inscribed on the wall at the Australian National Memorial.
John Alexander Raws wrote: “My tunic is rotten with other men’s blood, and partly splattered with a comrade’s brains. It is horrible, but why should you people at home not know? Several of my friends are raving mad. I met three officers out in No Man’s Land the other night, all rambling and mad the poor devils.”
Mr Turnbull also quoted Thomas Taylor, a 21-year-old wireless operator who worked at the post office in Moss Vale before serving on the Western Front. Taylor wrote an account of what he saw at daybreak on Anzac Day 1918 at Villers-Bretonneux.
“Here we saw sights that made one’s heart stand still with pity. For all along the road was stretcher bearers in their masks leading out men totally blind and crying with the pain of gas burns. Dozens were stumbling along alone while along the road were numbers sitting down waiting for a shell to put them out of misery.”
The Prime Minister of France, Édouard Philippe, paid tribute to the Australian soldiers who defended the French land they held inch by inch, “as if it were their own country”.
“And it is their own country,” Mr Philippe said.
“I could not help thinking of the terrible loneliness which these thousands of young Australians must have felt as their young lives were cut short in a foreign country.
“A foreign country. A faraway country. A cold country whose earth had neither the colour nor texture of their native bush.
“For many young Australians, this earth was their final safe place.
“For many of them, this earth was the final confidante of a thought or a word intended for a loved one from the other side of the world.
“Loved ones who would only learn the sad news several months later.
“The mud, the rats, the lice, the gas, the shellfire, the fallen comrades — we can never truly imagine what it was like.
“So we must tell them. We must show them — again and again.
“Show the faces of these young men whose lives were snuffed out in the mud of the trenches.
“Show the daily lives of these 20-year-old volunteers from faraway who listened only to their youthful courage, to their love for their country, or that of their parents or grandparents, to die here in Villers-Bretonneux.
“Show it with the help of modern technology, without taking our eyes off the names etched on to the memorial — names which are real, not virtual.
“We will never forget that 100 years ago, a young and brave nation on the other side of the world made history by writing our history.
“Lest we forget.”
To visit the Sir John Monash Centre book online now.
To watch the full official opening of the Sir John Monash Centre click on the video below.