On 25 April this year Australians will commemorate the
landing at Gallipoli, the ultimately ill-fated campaign of the First World
War designed to force the Dardanelles, take Constantinople (now Istanbul)
and topple the Ottoman Empire.
Around the nation, from the major cities and towns to
the smallest hamlets, religious services, marches of returned veterans and
speeches will take place to mark Anzac Day.
freshly-painted sign in the Villers-Bretonneux primary school proclaims:
‘Do Not Forget Australia’.
It is 90 years since that fateful day when the
Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) stormed the craggy beaches
of the Gallipoli Peninsula. The narrow isthmus, heavily defended by the
Turks, was their battlefield (and graveyard) for the next eight months. In
one grand charge alone, at a place called Lone Pine, soldiers of the New
South Wales 1st Infantry Brigade won seven Victoria Crosses. A day later
the foolishly brave men of the Australian Light Horse were cut to ribbons
by Turkish machine guns at a place appropriately named The Nek. The
slaughter took less than three minutes and the bodies would not be buried
until 1919. By then the bones of the dead had bleached the ground.
The Australians lost 8,709 killed in the Gallipoli
campaign; the New Zealanders suffered even worse, in percentage terms:
2,701 dead out of the 8,556 men who served. Compared to an average
campaign on the Western Front, the figures are almost paltry. Tell that to
the families of the men who were killed.
Australian influence in Villers-Bretonneux is unmistakable.
While the Gallipoli failure became just another
footnote in the quagmire of the First World War, 25 April 1915 came to
symbolise the spirit of the nation. It was Australia’s coming of age and
for many resonates more loudly than Australia Day, 26 January. Australians
often forget Gallipoli also featured the British and the French. Both
suffered heavy casualties. The French don’t have an exact number; a
Gallic wave of the red pen puts the official count at 10,000 dead. The
British are more precise; they lost 21,255. Another 52,230 were wounded,
among them Earl Thomas Powers, my maternal grandfather.
He didn’t make it past the first day. Wounded in the
leg, he fell back over a ledge and was fortunate to be snagged by a tree.
While the sounds of war raged around him and the smell of cordite singed
his nostrils he waited 24-hours before being rescued and brought to an aid
station. By then the wound had festered and gangrene was starting to set
in. The medics patched him up, but his leg would never completely heal and
he lived with a permanent sore for the remainder of what turned out to be
a long life. Apart from his brief and painful trip to Turkey, Earl Powers
lived out his life in Burnley, a Lancashire mill town. Every Armistice Day
for more than half a century he would play the ‘Last Post’ on a
trumpet at the Cenotaph in Towneley Hall, Burnley’s grand mediaeval
1918, Villers-Bretonneux, a little French village on the train line not
far from Amiens, was the site of Australian victories against overwhelming
The overall commander of the expedition, General Sir
Ian Hamilton - a fine man, but the wrong one for Gallipoli - concluded one
of his dispatches to the imperious Minister of War, Lord Kitchener:
‘This morning, the 10th Division captured a trench.’
Three years later and it is possible, indeed probable,
front-line commanders on the Western Front were sending similar messages
back to their headquarters. After Gallipoli, the Australian Imperial Force
(AIF) - the only completely volunteer army serving on the Western Front in
1918 - entered the new slaughterhouse. They fought and died in battles
such as the Somme, Pozieres, Bapaume, Arras, Bullecourt, Messines, Ypres,
Hamel, the Marne, Amiens, Passchendaele and many others. Over 46,000 died
in France; more than 11,000 have no known grave. It’s hard to imagine
almost a quarter have never been identified. I suppose that’s what
happens when you mix artillery shells with Flanders mud.
carefully tended Australian War Memorial (maintained by the Commonwealth
War Graves Commission) in Villers-Bretonneux is the nation’s principal
First World War memorial.
Villers-Bretonneux, a little French village on the
train line not far from Amiens, is the antithesis of Gallipoli. During
1918 it was the site of Australian victories against overwhelming odds and
the carefully tended Australian War Memorial (maintained by the
Commonwealth War Graves Commission) here is the nation’s principal First
World War memorial.
The Germans advanced in March 1918 but were halted by
stiff Australian resistance. They attacked in strength again in late April
and took the town. The Australians retook it three days later. Between
April and August four Australians won the Victoria Cross, one, Lieutenant
Cliff Sadlier, on Anzac Day, 25 April. Lieutenant Albert Borella MM won
his in mid-July while Lieutenant Alfred Gaby was awarded the medal
posthumously for his actions on 8 August. He was killed three days later
by a sniper when walking along the line encouraging his men during another
When my sister, youngest nephew and I visited
Villers-Bretonneux in July 2004 we arrived by train in the early morning.
The residents were only just beginning to stir as we trudged through the
town, heading for the War Memorial.
Long before you reach the memorial, the central tower
is clearly visible, standing stark in the countryside, surrounded by fresh
green and gold fields you imagine Van Gogh would have happily spent days
trying to paint, with or without his ear.
Looking at this typically rural landscape it is hard to
imagine that at this time in 1918 it was not much better than a mud heap,
the trees stripped of their foliage by shrapnel, the farmhouses mere
rubble, no longer habitable. It’s hard to imagine it in colour.
Photographs of the First World War are black and white, stark and Gothic,
betraying no hint of the Impressionist splash of nature’s lively
When referring to the appalling casualty figures the
language of writers, poets and journalists tends towards phrases that
include the term the ‘flower of youth’. Tens of thousands of the dead
were just that, youths, many still in their teens. Yet it is easy to
forget the older males, the family men and fathers, who paid the ultimate
Buried in Villers-Bretonneux are at least two men in
their forties. The headstones are spare and functional, giving little hint
of the person being honoured. ‘Private J. Hall, killed 30 March 1918,
aged 43.’ For J. K. McDowell, a winner of the Military Medal, who was
killed on 26 May 1918 at the age of 46 the headstone adds, ‘Sadly missed
by his sorrowing wife and family’.
Another reads: Lieutenant Hugh McCall, killed 12 August
1918, aged 29. ‘James H. McCall, father with wife and daughter visited
this grave August 25, 1923 bringing loving remembrances from family and
friends in Australia.’ It is almost impossible to imagine the emotion
and the tragedy behind that poignant gravestone.
Then there are those who lost their lives after the 11
November armistice. Sapper H. Long, of the Australian Engineers, was
killed on 25 November 1918; Private G. Mara a day later.
The war transcended religion as well as age. The
headstone for M. Marks of the 35th Battalion notes his date of death and
age: 8 August 1918, aged 18. Inscribed beneath these cursory details is
the Star of David.
Other headstones note the burial site of an unknown
soldier with the words: ‘A soldier of the Great War. An Australian
regiment.’ There are British, South African, and Canadian soldiers
buried here as well, including 17-year-old Private W. Jondrow, killed on
10 August 1918.
On the cream-coloured winged walls flanking the central
tower are the names of the 11,000 men for whom there is no known grave.
Little red paper flowers add a light touch of colour. The flowers have
been inserted into the cracks by previous visitors: one next to W. A.
Michie of the 45th Infantry Battalion, another alongside R. D. McLennan of
the 47th Battalion. That day there were six others so blessed.
Beneath the names of members of the 52nd Battalion was
a wooden cross inscribed ‘St. Stanislaus College, Bathurst’. A school
excursion from rural New South Wales to rural France I imagine.
In 1998 the Australian Rugby Union team (known as the
Wallabies) was in France to play one Test match. They made a special visit
to the memorial at Villers-Bretonneux and later attended a reception at
the town hall where the mayor praised the efforts of Australian soldiers
80 years earlier.
Coach Rod Macqueen later said, “It was a moving
moment, reading the names and the ages of the Australians who had fought
and died on foreign soil. Many were in their late teens and were younger
than those in our touring party. We had arranged the visit with a special
purpose in mind. We wanted to raise…in the minds of the players the
honour of playing for their country…I think it left an indelible mark
which was to surface later in the determination and courage of the
team.” The Wallabies went on to defeat France 32-21. In fact they won 15
of their next 17 matches, including the 1999 World Cup.
As the Wallabies prepared to go out on the field to
play France in the final of that World Cup, Macqueen read his players an
extract from the diary of Lieutenant Bethune, commander of a section of
the 3rd Machine Gun Company who were preparing to defend
Villers-Bretonneux against a German attack in March 1918. Bethune made six
points, among them were: 1. This section will be held, and the section
will remain here until relieved; 2. The enemy cannot be allowed to
interfere with this program; 3. If the section cannot remain here alive,
it will remain here dead, but in any case it will remain here. Bethune’s
sixth and final point was ‘the position, as stated, will be held.’ The
Wallabies proceeded to rout the French 35-12.
The Australian influence in Villers-Bretonneux is
unmistakable: from the Restaurant le Kangourou, the cafes with signs
outside bearing koalas, the streets with names such as the Rue de
Melbourne and the Rue Victoria, where the Ecole Primairie Victoria
(Victorian Primary School) is situated, to the police station with
kangaroo motifs embedded in stone above the entrance. Money donated by
people in Victoria after the war helped rebuild Villers-Bretonneux.
We had lunch in Chez Remy, a small brasserie opposite
the memorial park in town. The maitre d’ was a thick-set man in his
forties with a bad comb-over and handle-bar moustache, wearing an orange
T-shirt and black leather pants. He looked like the president of the local
chapter of the Village People fan club.
On the back wall was a small Australian flag, some
Australian postcards and a cabinet with ‘Australian’s presents’
inside: coins and stitch badges mainly. The toilet was a Thai-style squat
hole in the ground, a reminder we were in a rustic part of the French
countryside. It may well have been in service back in 1918.
In the war museum on the Rue Victoria the walls have
large, framed, black and white photos of Australians in and out of action.
It’s noticeable how many of the men photographed are smoking. Lung
cancer was the least of their worries.
There are detailed colour maps and diagrams of the
fighting in the Somme area and a bookcase filled with reading material, a
cornucopia of Australiana including C.E.W. Bean’s Official History of
Australia in the War of 1914-1918 as well as the more prosaic Australia
1964; Birds of Australia; and Fairholme: the First 75 Years
I spoke briefly with an Australian couple visiting the
museum. Aged in their 50’s the man said, “My father had me late in
life and he fought around here. He wouldn’t talk much about it. He was
with the 22nd Battalion and I’ve got his diary. He’d been at Gallipoli
and then Egypt and came to France.”
His wife added, “He reckoned this was worse than
Gallipoli. The mud and the cold and the trenches.”
It’s impossible to come away from Villers-Bretonneux
and not feel a mixture of intense national pride tempered by a wretched
sorrow at the destruction of so many lives. All told, the nation lost
60,284 men killed. This out of the 331,781 who went overseas on active
service. Another 153,000 were wounded. It was a terrible toll. Australia
gained northern New Guinea and the islands of the Bismarck Archipelago for
While the survivors of that terrible war number a
handful and the veterans of the equally ferocious Second World War
diminish each year, Anzac Day lives on and, especially in recent years,
draws ever more converts.
Australia may have become a nation in 1901, yet its
sense of unity and purpose was not forged until the Homeric tragedy of the
Dardanelles. If Gallipoli was the forge that gave the steel to a nation,
Villers-Brettoneux tempered that steel.
The volunteers were not warmongers, nor professional soldiers; they
were part of an attitude and an ideal that may have long expired in our
society. The attitudes have long since changed and the ideals may have
been flawed, but their courage was unmatched and their sacrifice is part
of what makes Australia and Australians a great and justifiably proud
nation. Perhaps that’s why almost a century later a freshly-painted sign
in the Villers-Bretonneux primary school proclaims: ‘Do Not Forget