It has been said that the last witness in war is the ground itself. Today, in France, a unique and wealthy heritage remains from the battles on the Western Front.
Red poppies first made famous by poet John McCrae (‘In Flanders Fields’, 1915) still bloom in clusters alongside farming fields, while military cemeteries, commemorative monuments, battlefield ruins and museums are keeping the collective memory alive.
In addition to the Sir John Monash Centre, some of the impressive sites in the region of Villers-Bretonneux include:
- Australian National Memorial: This is the only memorial dedicated solely to Australian military personnel killed on the Western Front during the First World War. It lists the names of 10,773 soldiers from the Australian Imperial Force who were killed in France, with no known grave. It was designed in 1938 by Edwin Lutyens who also planned New Delhi. The other memorial to Australia’s unknown soldiers in France is VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial, 120km north, near Fromelles.
- Musee Franco-Australien: The people of Villers-Bretonneux have never forgotten the courage and sacrifice of Australian servicemen, and this renovated museum in the Victoria School is a focal point for the ongoing connection between the two countries. The exhibition includes photos, uniforms, firearms, letters and personal objects.
- Menin Gate Memorial: The gate was so named because the road out of Ypres passed through the old wall defences towards Menin. During the war, thousands of troops passed through, heading into the front line. The symbolic site became home to a huge monument in 1927, recording 55,000 names of imperial soldiers missing in Belgium. Words by Rudyard Kipling are inscribed on both sides and the Last Post is sounded each evening. Two stone lions from the Gate were gifted to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra in 1936.
- Adelaide Cemetery: Nearly two-thirds of the graves are those of Australian soldiers killed from March to September 1918. Expect to see row after row of gravestones. The remains of an unknown soldier were exhumed from here in 1993 and laid to rest at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The then Prime Minister, Paul Keating, gave the historic eulogy:
‘We do not know this Australian’s name and we never will. … We do not know who loved him or whom he loved. If he had children, we do not know who they are. His family is lost to us as he was lost to them. We will never know who this Australian was. … We know that he was one of the 45,000 Australians who died on the Western Front. … He is all of them. And he is one of us.
- Amiens: The Amiens Cathedral is renowned as one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the world. During the war, great precautions were taken to protect the World Heritage listed-structure, which was built from 1220 to 1270. In 1918, it received nine direct hits but none caused serious damage
- Underground City of Naours: This 3km complex of tunnels, dating back to the Middle Ages, is believed to house the largest concentration of First World War graffiti. There are nearly 2000 inscriptions by Allied soldiers, including 731 Anzacs, providing a unique insight into the Australian experience on the Western Front
- Vignacourt: This village stood behind the front line and was an important staging centre and refuge for the rest and recovery of troops. Many soldiers were photographed by locals, Louis and Antoinette Thuillier. (The original lithograph images, acquired by Australian philanthropist Kerry Stokes, are now held by the Australian War Memorial.) Vignacourt has a British Cemetery, with 587 soldiers’ graves, including those of notable Australians. In place of the customary cross of sacrifice, a statue of a French soldier stands sentinel, with the inscription: ‘Brothers in arms of the British Army, fallen on the field of honour, sleep in peace; we are watching over you.’
- Australian Corps Memorial: Le Hamel, 5km from Villers-Bretonneux, is an essential stop for Australian travellers, being the site of Monash’s great war-turning victory of 1918. The monument was refurbished in 2016 and tells the story of Australians’ contribution to the war. It is a place of solemnity, reflection and peace.