Anzac Day pilgrims have again turned out in force in northern France in a further sign of the growing understanding and appreciation of Australia’s contribution on the Western Front.
Australians young and old stood side-by-side with French locals on Friday at a moving dawn service at the Australian National Memorial on the outskirts of Villers-Bretonneux.
Villers-Bretonneux is the site of one of Australia’s great victories of World War I, but the nation suffered heavy losses on the Western Front, with 46,000 of the 295,000 who served there never making it home.
The battle of Villers-Bretonneux marked a key turning point in the war when the Australians stopped the German forces advancing toward Paris.
But their success came at a heavy cost. More than 1,500 were killed or wounded in the battle, which began on the night of April 24, 1918, and ended on Anzac Day.
Many of those who died fighting on the Western Front have never been found and 10,764 names are etched on the Australian memorial’s stone walls honouring the lost.
Angie and Stephen Connelly, from Lennox Head in NSW, went to the service because Angie’s great uncle, Hubert O’Neill, is one of those listed.
“There was a fair investment here (the Western Front) in terms of lives it’s great that so many people are coming here to have a look and remember,” Mr Connelly said.
Katrina Moane’s grandfather, Frederick Marks, survived three years at Flanders in Belgium and at the Somme during World War II.
Along with her husband, Stuart, she was attending her first dawn service at Villers-Bretonneux. The Newcastle couple have visited many Western Front battlefields.
“That’s one of the major reasons we’re here, plus we go to an Anzac Day ceremony every year,” Mr Moane said.
The event has grown steadily in popularity since it was first held in 2008, with officials saying 4500 people attended this year’s service – believed to be a record turnout.
The head of the Villers-Bretonneux ceremony, Major-General David Chalmers, predicted earlier this week it would become Australia’s most significant national service beyond next year’s centenary commemorations in Gallipoli.
As dawn broke on Friday, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told those gathered the brave efforts of diggers on the Western Front helped make the country what it is today.
“The war was no less than the crucible that forged modern Australia,” she said.
Ms Bishop said the turnout in the remote French location showed a broadening of Australia’s WWI focus, particularly among young people.
“The crowds here today are clearly conscious of the sacrifices that were made here at Villers-Bretonneux and other places on the Western Front,” Ms Bishop said.
“It’s become somewhat of a pilgrimage for young people to go to Gallipoli but I think Villers-Bretonneux, Bullecourt and other places on the Western Front might likewise become those sacred places that attract young Australians.”