"On high ground adjacent to the small French village of Villers-Bretonneux, one of Tony Abbott's legacies as prime minister is scheduled for completion and opening on Anzac Day 2018 at Villers-Bretonneux - the Sir John Monash Interpretive Centre, a state-of-the-art visitors' gateway to the Western Front.
The Sir John Monash Centre will be a high-quality building over three levels, partly sunk into the ground, located behind yet consistent with the imposing Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, just 2km from the town. The centre will probably become the most enduring consequence of the Australian 2014-18 World War I centenary events.
The Monash Centre will expand and energise Australian tourism to the Western Front across the next 100 years. Now the site of a mass excavation with the concrete foundation having just been poured, the centre rectifies the abject failure of past governments to offer Australian visitors any focal point of information and comfort as they roam the widely dispersed Western Front battlefields that constitute the nation's greatest tragedy and most inspirational moments.
"The Monash Centre is on time and on budget," Veterans Affairs Minister Dan Tehan said when inspecting the site last week. "This centre will put the Western Front on the page of our history. It is an incredibly important project in that regard." The project is Abbott's vision. He recognised when opposition leader in the run-up to the 2013 election the grossly inadequate official plans for the Great War centenary programs. He decided that something more substantial was essential and had to focus on the Western Front where more than 46,000 Australians lost their lives.
Abbott recognised the absurd lack of national perspective in our war commemoration. While Gallipoli became the understandable location of national preoccupation and the Australian legend, it is the Western Front where the toll of sacrifice dwarfed any comparison and where, during the battles of 1918, the Australian Imperial Force played a decisive role in the encounters that ended the war.
"Overlooking our role on the Western Front has been a case of historical amnesia," Abbott told this column when he visited the planned site in June 2014. "This will help to shape our country into the future."
In opposition Abbott committed to the project. In government he moved swiftly to secure approval, funding, French government co-operation and implementation. This project exists only because of the commitment of Abbott and his former office chief, Peta Credlin. It is a reminder these days that without prime ministerial drive the wheels of government deliver little.
The on-site project managers are Caroline Bartlett and Wade Bartlett. The Australian company, Cox Architecture, has the design contract. The concept also involves the separate completion of the original design for the national memorial as conceived by the great British architect Edwin Lutyens, who designed the Villers-Bretonneux memorial for Australia as well as the nearby British monument on the Somme, the largest Commonwealth memorial in the world.
The excavation has unearthed 1200 war objects — shovels, helmets, water bottles — some of which will be displayed in the new centre. The centre will contain galleries, a cafe and bookshop. The current access will remain; visitors approach by walking through the cemetery on to the foreground before the national monument with its high tower and take one of the pathways on either side to the visitors centre behind the monument.
War commemoration, a modern industry tied to family, nation and emotion, is more cosmopolitan than ever — and on the Western Front its power resides in the beauty of the Somme Valley, its villages and provincial towns that celebrate their allies from a century ago.
Small parts of this world belong to Australia, by government commemorative purchase, by blood, by memory. Australian flags dot the villages from Fromelles to Pozieres to Albert to Villers-Bretonneux. In this world, graveyards and dead great-uncles are the silent marketing tools.
Villers-Bretonneux, with its population of about 4000, has charm but is hardly fashionable. The visitors centre will increase tourism to the town, famous for its school and permanent sign in the schoolyard, "Do Not Forget Australia", along with its adjacent museum. The town needs a new hotel and the injection of capital. Visits from a few Australian entrepreneurs may help.
The Monash Centre is not without its critics in Australia — there seem to be none in Villers-Bretonneux — but the concept will cater for the tens of thousands of Australians who visit the Western Front annually and these numbers are sure to grow.
Villers-Bretonneux, located outside the major city and supply point of Amiens, won fame as a result of the great 1918 German offensive, Operation Michael, when Germany tried to break through to finish the war. On this part of the front, the Germans were finally halted by Australian and British forces at the east of Amiens.
The Germans took Villers-Bretonneux on April 24, 1918, but were promptly ejected by the Australians in a battle that became conspicuous for the success and savagery of the Australian attack, with official war correspondent Charles Bean saying "the restraints of civilised intercourse" were abandoned.
Generalissimo of Allied forces Ferdinand Foch praised the "astonishing valiance" of the AIF. Amiens had been saved. On the British side, Brigadier-General George Grogan, who had been involved, called it "perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war". Australian commander John Monash said later: "There is no spot on the whole of the tortured soil of France which is more associated with Australian history and the triumph of Australian soldiers than Villers-Bretonneux."
Post-war, it was chosen as the site for our national monument.
In France, war commemoration transcends book and film; it comes from the soil, the shops and the people. At Amiens the main railway station has a vast display of public art — on either side of the entrance are seven large photos of Allied forces under the words "THANKS" and "MERCI", the Australians easily identifiable.
The ancient Amiens cathedral has a tablet near the altar dedicated to the memory of the AIF and the troops who gave their lives "for the cause of justice, liberty and humanity". In 1920 Foch came to the cathedral to say "our gratitude will remain ever and always to Australia".
The engines of war memory are fuelled by family history, patriotism and the modern fascination with trauma and victimhood. A total of 1.41 million people visited the Australian War Memorial in 2015. As the Great War further recedes Australians are becoming more mature about war commemoration — any glorification is gone; respect, grief and awe are the dominant emotions.
The legacy of the Great War, moreover, runs far beyond the military. The war smashed the social order in country after country with mixed results. It triggered more democracy, greater trade union membership, demand for female rights, but it also unleashed the explosions of communism and fascism along with new methods of mass violence.
In power terms there was a sinister subtlety to the war's outcome: Germany and Italy went fascist, Russia went communist, the US retreated into isolationism, a fearful France fretted it had won just a short reprieve and the British Empire pledged its battered soul to the convenient delusion of appeasement.
These days the political divisions generated by the war are largely faded. The history has surrendered to the poets. The battlefields are now lush farms and rich harvests. And every road you travel and town where you stop has its Australian story and symbols.
Villers-Bretonneux Australian War Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux, France
Departing Villers-Bretonneux Anzac Day service