Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux
At home, or as you tour the twelve locations of the Australian Remembrance Trail in France and Belgium, listen to a four-minute audio-cast featuring the extraordinary stories of Australian soldiers 'on this spot'. Listen to the audio-cast from your device. Also available are all 12 audio-casts.
This is the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux in France. From here, on 5 November 1993, the coffin containing Australia's Unknown Soldier began the long trip home to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Fifty-five years before, on 22 July 1938, Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland laid a small bunch of poppies on the steps leading up to the memorial tower.
The Queen had been given the flowers that morning by a small boy from the Franco-Australian school in Villers-Bretonneux as she and her husband, King George VI, arrived to officially dedicate the memorial. After the King laid an official wreath, the Queen whispered to him, walked to his wreath, laid the poppies on top of it, and then stood looking for a moment at the memorial. Stretching away on either side of her, engraved in stone, were the names of more than 11 000 men of the Australian Imperial Force who had been killed in France in World War I and had 'no known grave'. Forty-eight of them went 'missing' in the fields immediately to the south-east of the tower on 25 April 1918.
From the top of the tower there is a good view of those fields and of the whole countryside encompassing Villers-Bretonneux, the city of Amiens away to the west, and the town of Corbie, with its 18th Century twin-towered abbey church. On 24 April 1918 the Germans, in their advance towards Amiens, seized Villers-Bretonneux. That night, Australian soldiers counter-attacked to the north and south of the town and encircled it, and by the evening of 25 April—Anzac Day—the enemy had been driven out. On this northern side, men of the Australian 57th, 59th and 60th Battalions, supported by the 58th Battalion, formed up on the road well down the slope to the west of the memorial. Then, carrying out a complicated forward movement in the dark, the Australians advanced through the shallow valley between the tower and the town, the 60th passing closest to the memorial. Soon they were strung out along the apex of the ridge directly to the east.
As the Australians approached German positions, the light from a burning building revealed their movement. Enemy flares lit the scene and the order was given to charge. 'There went up', wrote historian Charles Bean, 'from the unleashed line a shout—a savage, eager yell of which every narrative speaks—and the Australians made straight for the enemy'. Personal accounts collected later from every battalion, company and platoon which took part revealed the physical intensity of their assault: '[the Germans] screamed for mercy but there were too many machine guns about to show them any consideration', 'these three men [the first German machine-gun crew] were either bayoneted or shot'. Bean concluded that the half hour it took to seize the German line ranked as one of the 'wildest in the experience of the Australian infantry'.
As the Germans never retook these positions, it is surprising that the bodies of as many as forty-eight Australian soldiers went 'missing' in this northern area of the attack. Their names are listed with the missing of the 57th, 58th, 59th and 60th Battalions on the Australian National Memorial. The story of their fate is a tale worth telling on any Anzac Day.