Anzac Day: Australia and France pay tribute to foreign world of bloodshed

It was 100 years ago to the place, the year and the hour.

The dawn service at Villers-Bretonneux on a landscape of peace was a foreign world to the bloodshed on the same site a century ago.

Anzac Day 2018 commemor­ated the successful Australian ­counter-attack that saved the town, left an enduring Franco-Australian bond and elevated ­Villers-Bretonneux as the ultimate symbol of Australian success and sacrifice on the Western Front. Prince Charles, Malcolm Turnbull and French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe honoured the dawn service beneath a windy and grey sky before nearly 8200 guests assembled on makeshift stands and chairs in front of the Australian National Memorial.

The centenary event enshrines Villers-Bretonneux as a commemorative site on foreign soil ­rivalled only by Gallipoli.

Mr Philippe said the commemoration was triggered by “an old continent tearing itself asunder” and “a young nation — your ­nation — coming to the aid of old countries — ours”.

Mr Turnbull said: “The people of France, the people of Villers-Bretonneux do not forget Australia’s sons. They are their sons too.

“Here the Australian flag flies high; kangaroos guard the entrance to the town hall; the Victoria School rebuilt with donations from Australian children is stamped with the words: ‘N’oublions jamais l’Australie’. Let us never forget Australia.

“There is love and heartfelt gratitude here. We are mates, brothers in arms — just as the Australian Digger and the French Poilu were mates a century ago.”

After the service an emotional Mr Turnbull was lyrical about the future of the Australia-French partnership.

The first Anzac Day at Gallipoli created a national legend. On the third Anzac Day, the troops at Villers-Bretonneux heard the call — their efforts on the Western Front embodied the greatest sacrifices and military feats in our history. Gallipoli was a tragedy; Villers-Bretonneux was a triumph. These are the bookends of Australia’s Great War experience.

This was the largest crowd at Villers-Bretonneux since the opening of the National Memorial by King George VI 80 years ago. On this occasion the night surrendered to dawn during the address of Mr Philippe.

The French Prime Minister ­offered a stirring tribute to the last Gallipoli survivor, Alec Campbell.

“The Australians know him well; the French, little or not at all. Today, as the sun rises, I would like to talk about him.

“A photo shows him aged 16 or 17 — he lied about his age to join up. His boyish face contrasts starkly with the long bayonet attached to his proudly held rifle.

“This man is Alec Campbell, the last Australian survivor of Gallipoli. His death greatly moved Australia.”

Mr Philippe’s theme was that the passing of living links with the Great War left an obligation on the current generation to keep alive the collective memory.

Recalling Gallipoli, the French leader said it could be seen as an “odd cradle” for a Pacific nation. It ended in disaster and the young Australians “met the lice, the rats, the gas” on the Western Front. It was fear, discouragement and tears. “But on 25 April 1918, they met victory,” he said. “And what a victory!”

The Anzacs halted the German offensive on Amiens at a cost of “heavy sacrifice”.

Mr Philippe said the Australians fought “cool-headedly, and with fervour, and with that brav­ura, full of panache that I believe is now known as Anzac spirit”. He said of Australia and France, “the values that unite us are far greater than the oceans that separate us, lest we forget.”

Mr Turnbull said that both friend and foe saw the battle of ­Villers-Bretonneux as “one of the greatest feats of the war”. He said 3900 Australians fought, taking 2500 casualties. The architect of victory, General Sir John Monash, called it “the turning point in the war”. Mr Turnbull said: “We meet here 100 years later, on land long healed, to remember them. We show that they are not forgotten.”

The obligation on the current generation was to “honour the values for which they fought: freedom, democracy and the rule of law — our Australian way of life”.

At the opening of the ceremony the Chief of the Defence Force, Mark Binskin, delivered the Call to Remembrance, saying: “For the first time since 1914, German soldiers glimpsed Amiens. The Allies had to retake Villers-Bretonneux. Two Australian brigades, the 13th and 15th, were ordered from their billets. They were full of confidence, helmets cocked, cigarettes in mouths, said a journalist who watched them pass.

“Word passed between the Australians — in a few hours it would be Anzac Day. They determined to mark the anniversary with a significant victory. After Villers-Bretonneux, the Germans never advanced again on this part of the front.”