At Villers-Bretonneux, Australians remember those who served in World War One

Two thousand Australians are expected to brave rain and bitter cold to mark the centenary of the World War One armistice in the French town of Villers-Bretonneux on Sunday.

Two visitors walk among the headstones at the World War I Australian National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux, France.

Two visitors walk among the headstones at the World War I Australian National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux, France.

AAP

The forecast is for 9-12 degrees Celsius with moderate winds and showers, but Veterans Affairs Minister Darren Chester says those conditions will be nothing compared to those experienced by Australia’s 300,000 soldiers who fought on the Western Front between 1916-1918.

“Australians are a hardy lot and a little bit of discomfort for us, that we might endure [during the service], is nothing compared to the trials and the tribulations of those who served on the Western Front during World War One,” he said.

“It was one of the most unforgiving places on the planet to be trying to secure ground, in horrendous conditions. For us, a little bit of discomfort is not going to make people stay away.”

War heroes from diverse backgrounds honoured

It is fitting that the weather will be similar to the chilly and damp day that the Armistice came into effect 100 years ago.

The global Armistice commemorations will occur in Paris but Australia will instead remember its 42,000 killed and 132,000 wounded on the Western Front, along with all 400,000 Australians who served in the war, in a little village in France’s northern Somme department.

Villers-Bretonneux is a name Australians know well.

A group of recruits for the 9th Battalion in front of one of the huts at Enoggera Barracks in Brisbane, Queensland, 2018.

A group of recruits for the 9th Battalion in front of one of the huts at Enoggera Barracks in Brisbane, Queensland, 2018.

Australian War Memorial

However, unlike the well-known battles of Gallipoli, the Somme, Fromelles, Pozieres and Ypres, this one was a significant victory.

At Villers-Bretonneux, Australians, British and French helped halt the relentless German Spring Offensive of 1918, designed to blitz the Allies out of the war before the Americans mobilised.

After the Germans took the town on April 23, the Allies feared they would use it as a bridgehead to attack the mainline railway junction at Amiens, just 20km away.

Cutting it could have split the Allied front and stopped the movement of troops, reinforcements and supplies.

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But Allied forces snuck back into the Villers-Bretonneux area under the cover of darkness on April 24, with the Australians attacking the northern and southern flanks.

The fighting raged until the following day when the Australians encircled the town before French and British attacked head-on from Amiens.

For the Australian Imperial Force, the triumph had come almost exactly three years on from the disastrous rout at Gallipoli.

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But the victory was bittersweet: 2473 Australians, 9529 British, 3470 French and 10,400 Germans were killed or wounded.

On a hill overlooking Villers-Bretonneux, the Australian National Memorial today contains the graves of more than 2100 soldiers, of whom 608 are unidentified.

A stark white wall is also inscribed with the names of 10,000 Australians who died on the Western Front and have no known grave.

Mr Chester says the commemoration on Sunday will ensure the Australian story of World War One remains fresh in our memories a century after it ended.

“It’s important that we come here and respectfully look back at that service,” he said.

An Australian flag adorns the headstone of an unknown soldier at the World War I Australian National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux, France.

An Australian flag adorns the headstone of an unknown soldier at the World War I Australian National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux, France.

AAP