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Disquiet for the Western Front over plans honouring centenary of Anzac

BY:Paul Kelly and Patrick Walters
From:The Australian July 07, 2012

*SOR Comment 26 April 2015: How time flies and how the author has proven to be correct. The new Sir John Monash Centre for Villers-Bretonneux for the 2018 Centenary is the answer to this article.


A boy walks away after Anzac Day wreath-laying ceremonies at the Australian National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux. Picture: AP Source: AP

BY any measure World War I can be considered the most important event in Australia's history in terms of personal sacrifice, national impact and military achievement.

The Gillard government has promised $83.5 million across the next seven years for the 2014-18 Anzac centenary. But a closer analysis suggests it may become a lost opportunity for the nation. The main omission is astonishing: the failure, so far, to address the meaning of the centenary on the Western Front battlefields. Unless addressed, this absence would be unforgivable.

In an exclusive interview, the minister in charge of the Anzac centenary, Warren Snowdon, predicts a much larger 2014-18 anniversary than people realise and has given his personal support to a new concept of Australian World War I commemoration proposed in this article. Our submission is that Australia must use the centenary to rethink its commemorative presence on the Western Front. The centenary's priority must be the story of Australian soldiers in World War I despite any cultural resistance to the idea.

Tens of thousands of Australians will visit Western Front battlefields annually in the years ahead along with citizens from other countries and they need far better provision than exists at present. "We are yet to really understand how big this event will be," Snowdon says of the centenary overall. He acknowledges that Australia must do more to engage France and Belgium on Western Front commemoration.

The reality, however, is that the Western Front, where more than 46,000 Australians lost their lives from 1916 to 1918 and more than 100,000 were wounded, is the missing link in centenary planning. This testifies to serious weakness and misplaced priorities in official reports to government. The immediate national focus will be the Gallipoli centenary on April 25, 2015. An intergovernmental agreement limits global attendance at Anzac Cove to 10,500, with the quota for Australians being below this figure.

Snowdon, who is Veterans Affairs Minister, says the limit is because of "what the site will hold". "The idea has been put forward to have a ballot," he says. "That is now being investigated for individuals and families. We haven't made a final decision."

The rationing of access to Gallipoli at the centenary will be a political nightmare for government. Any arrangement requires Turkey's consent. Snowdon concedes "it's tricky". He favours special arrangements for direct descendants and young people. Even more than with the Sydney Olympics, however, resentment from those missing out will be intense. With such a small quota, disappointment will be high. The 2014-18 centenary, however, will cover the full World War I story. That demands a far higher priority for the Western Front, the main theatre of our battlefield casualties and military successes.

Concerns about the centenary were provoked as a result of last year's National Commission on the Commemoration of the Anzac Centenary report to government that argued the program "will encompass all wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations in which Australians have been involved".Pressed on this point, an emphatic Snowdon says: "World War I is the priority, absolutely." This assurance is pivotal. Any politically correct effort to sanitise the history or diminish the cost or achievements of Australians in 1914-18 would guarantee a public backlash.

Few Australian households were left unscathed by the Great War. Of the 330,000 men of the First Australian Imperial Force who served overseas, nearly 60,000 were killed and more than 150,000 wounded - a casualty rate close to 65 per cent. On the Western Front, in seven weeks around Pozieres on the Somme front in 1916, Australia lost nearly as many men (23,000) as in the entire eight months of the Gallipoli campaign. A year later the five Australian infantry divisions suffered 38,000 casualties in eight weeks fighting in the Passchendaele offensive in Flanders.

In 1918 the Australian divisions, fighting under the unified command of John Monash, were conspicuous in the main allied offensive that ended the war. As former defence minister Kim Beazley says: "This was the only time in our history when Australians were involved in the main theatre of the main offensive that ended a war of global significance." The performance of the First AIF in 1918 has no parallel in our military history. This means Australia's diplomatic effort in commemoration planning must be as intense with France as it is with Turkey.

So far this is not the case, as Snowdon recognises. There will be far more Australians travelling to the Western Front, notably to France and to Belgium, during the centenary than to Gallipoli. Commemorations at the Western Front will last for a longer time and extend across a range of battlefields in two countries.

THE single most intense Western Front focus will occur at Villers-Bretonneux on Anzac Day 2018 to honour the Australian counter-attack that liberated the town from the Germans, completed by a remarkable coincidence, on the third Anzac Day in 1918.

The 2018 Anzac Day commemoration at Villers-Bretonneux will witness probably the largest influx of Australians into France for a century.

Australian military historian Peter Pedersen says Villers-Bretonneux "is probably the best known Australian battlefield on the Western Front". It is the site of the Australian National Memorial on the Western Front designed by British architect Edwin Lutyens. This monument features a 34m tower flanked by long stone walls inscribed with the names of 10,771 Australians who died on French soil and have no known grave.

The significance of the Australian action at Villers-Bretonneux is that it spelled the end, just outside Amiens, of the great German Michael offensive of March 1918 launched by General Erich Ludendorff. During debate on where to locate Australia's memorial, Monash said: "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."

From 2008, the Anzac Day dawn service at Villers-Bretonneux has become a government-organised event. This year nearly 4000 people attended, almost all Australians, in an hour-long ceremony televised live to Australia following the service from Gallipoli.

Labor's recent budget with its $83.5m allocation offers the best insight, so far, into what the centenary means. There are many worthy aspects. It is our contention, however, the plans contain unacceptable omissions that demand a serious rethink. Australia's approach to war commemoration on its far-flung battlefields is outdated and poorly focused. On the Western Front it must move beyond the essential oversight of war cemetery maintenance (work carried out by the British-led Commonwealth War Graves Commission) and modest investments in Remembrance Trails.

Where is the centenary money going? A total of $27m will refurbish the Australian War Memorial's First World War galleries. This is important. It is the biggest single allocation. A further $14.4m will support overseas commemorations. Another $9.5m will go in grants to help local communities commemorate the centenary. Once distributed, it will be spread thinly. Another $8.1m is to upgrade and improve war graves and memorials, not an excessive figure given the vast number of graves in Australia and abroad.

There is a new focus on the West Australian town of Albany where, from King George Sound in November 1914, the Anzac convoys left for the Middle East. For many Anzacs, it was the last time they walked on Australian land. Labor has allocated $6.5m for an Anzac Interpretive Centre at Albany with the state government also assisting. In addition, there will be a re-enactment of the embarkation from Albany.

Last October Julia Gillard announced the appointment of a representative 21-person Anzac advisory board headed by former Defence Force chief Angus Houston, to assist government with centenary planning. It includes Sandy Hollway, a former chief executive of the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games. This highly qualified board will now shape centenary priorities. Snowdon awaits its advice late this year and says he will rely on its thinking. "In my view there's no doubt the centenary will capture hearts and minds of people all over the country," he says. "We have yet to come to terms with how big this could end up being."

Snowdon says the government is working to ensure a strong private sector financial contribution. Businessman Lindsay Fox is co-ordinating the effort to raise funds. "We are hopeful of setting up a trust," Snowdon says. The earlier national commission established by the Rudd government, which included former prime ministers Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser, made a series of recommendations that have met a mixed reception. That report was a manifest disappointment. Its proposed theme for the centenary is the uninspiring notion of a "Century of Service" that the associated Colmar Brunton research report found, unsurprisingly, is "not intuitively understood" by the public and about which people are not passionate. We are told, however, that when the concept is explained people get enthusiastic. Maybe.

The concept is designed to be inclusive. Asked if he is happy about this theme, Snowdon says: "Yes. I haven't been persuaded not to be happy." He dismisses any notion the centenary will be used to redefine Anzac Day. "We won't be doing that," he says. "Anzac Day is not the property of government. Anzac Day is the property of the people. There's no way I would be proposing we redefine Anzac Day."Yet there are worrying signs. The national commission proposed, as one of its central ideas, the Anzac Centre for the Study of Peace, Conflict and War, attached to the Australian National University. It's a notion reeking of political tokenism and trying to use the centenary to "recognise war as a vehicle for peace", and it is extraordinary that such a distinguished committee should blunder by proposing that the name Anzac be used in this way. Significantly, so far no funds in the $83.5m are allocated to this idea.

Snowdon does not dismiss the proposal outright but he is lukewarm. He says no capital funds from government will be provided. Anybody familiar with what "peace studies" actually means in the academy will be alerted to the danger embedded in this notion.

The proposal reveals the shallowness and confusion in much of the established thinking about the centenary. Yes, there are some worthwhile ideas. The national commission recommended a mobile exhibition travelling the nation focused on World War I memorabilia. Snowdon is keen to bring this proposal to fruition. However, our existing Western Front memorials, despite their impact, are obsolete. What is required on the Western Front is the idea of a living and permanent Australian presence.

A model exists for this: it is what the Canadians have achieved at their magnificent national memorial at Vimy Ridge, just 15 minutes' drive from the French provincial city of Arras. Any Australian who visits the Western Front should include Vimy Ridge in their itinerary to grasp how superior, sophisticated and sensitive is Canada's model and how inferior is the Australian counterpart. Remember that Canada's experience of World War I is remarkably similar to that of Australia - it lost about 60,000 men, about the same as Australia but from a larger population. The war became pivotal to Canadian national identity. It is an over-simplification but Canada's Vimy Ridge victory has parallels, though not as strong, with Gallipoli in the formation of the respective national stories.

On commanding high ground owned and managed by Canada, the 100ha site has the convenient advantage of being a designated Canadian National Historic Site, a war cemetery and a preserved battlefield. The organised focus is a superbly landscaped national information centre with loads of parking for cars and tourist buses. All Canadians who visit the Western Front come to this point as the emotional and explanatory focus for their visit. Australia has no such facility.

At any time a total of 15 Canadian university students, on three to four-month sabbaticals, supervise the Vimy Ridge centre, greet fellow Canadians among other visitors, provide materials on all aspects of the Canadian Western Front experience and conduct battlefield tours. The students also operate the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial (the only other Canadian National Historic Site outside the country) dedicated to one of the most shocking individual allied unit experiences of the war - the July 1916 attack by the Newfoundland Regiment during the first day of the battle of the Somme when the regiment was virtually wiped out in 30 minutes. The casualty rate was 90 per cent.

At Vimy Ridge last year 700,000 visitors came to visit the great limestone Canadian memorial and the nearby battlefield, and the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial recorded 150,000 visitors. Such huge numbers testify to the momentum of Western Front tourism. This phenomenon is guaranteed to grow and multiply. Australia has made no serious provision for the certain future upsurge in our own citizens visiting the Western Front. This should be the task of the centenary. Veterans Affairs Canada operates the two sites at an annual running cost of about $C3.7m ($3.5m). This includes contractual arrangements relating to the students. The Canadian students live at Arras with loads of opportunity to experience French culture. The students told us that in Canada selection for these positions was highly competitive and the sabbatical was prized with thousands of students applying.

Our battlefield tour guide, Alex, a linguistics student from Nova Scotia, gave us an exposition and account of the Vimy Ridge battle more impressive than a professional guide. Sheep now graze in and around the old craters and the landscape is filled with pines and maples.

Our submission is that Australia duplicate the Canadian model, that our officials visit the location and receive briefings from Veterans Affairs Canada to construct a blueprint for action and a financial plan.

The critical question is where should such an Australian information centre with audio-visual display, operated by Australian university students, be located?

Australia has nothing to match the Vimy Ridge site but the best location is obvious: it is Villers-Bretonneux. This is high ground (though not as high as Vimy). It is the location of the magnificent Australian National Memorial and is, increasingly, the emotional focus of Australian attention. From the V-B monument you enjoy a 360-degree perspective and can see 5km to the northeast another iconic Australian location, the memorial park at Le Hamel.

This honours the July 4, 1918, battle when Australian and allied forces under Monash's command took 93 minutes to recapture Hamel. This made Monash famous for his battle plan and resulted in French leader Georges Clemenceau calling at the 4th Division headquarters to deliver a sentimental speech in English to the AIF veterans.

The Australian National Memorial is not far from the town where goodwill towards Australia is manifest. Indeed, the town resembles a joint French-Australia project. Part of the local primary school is called Salle Victoria and has a large playground sign saying "Do Not Forget Australia". On the first floor of the school is an extensive Franco-Australian museum that honours the fighting for Villers-Bretonneux in 1918.

There is, however, insufficient land at the 5ha Australian National Memorial for a Canadian-type information centre expansion we envisage. What is required as the centenary looms is for the Australian Prime Minister to use this unique occasion to request from French President Francois Hollande a modest expansion in our landholding.

This would enable Villers-Bretonneux to serve three purposes - as the Australian monument, a war cemetery and as a new "living" Australian-operated information centre introducing visitors to our history on the Western Front. It would become the recognised focal point for the benefit of all Australians who make the visit.

The problem at present for Australian visitors is that the Western Front is a series of disconnected memorials without any central narrative or informative focus for the Australian story.

Australian university students would operate the centre on three-month sabbaticals and live at Villers-Bretonneux or at nearby Amiens, a bustling 150,000-strong city these days.

It was defended by the Australians during the war, with its 13th-century gothic cathedral one of the largest in Europe. Inside the church is a plaque saying: "May the memory of great sacrifices in a common cause keep France and Australia together forever." The city is rich in Australian anecdotes.

Financial provision for the new capital works could be raised by the trust Snowdon envisages, if the Australian government was unable to finance them. Annual running costs would be comparable with those of Canada and would be easily met from the federal budget.

Asked how he feels about this new commemoration concept in principle (not in detail), Snowdon says: "Conceptually, I think this is a smart thing. Whether or not we have the resources to fund it is another thing. I am personally attracted to the idea but I can't commit the government."

It is an important endorsement. Australia urgently needs to upgrade its Western Front presence. It is inadequate compared with the Canadians or the great British monument and visitor centre at Thiepval dedicated to the missing of the Somme.

It is disappointing that centenary plans are advanced with minimal attention paid to Australia's presence on Western Front where the greatest sacrifices in our history were made and the finest military feats in our history were recorded. Creation of a new Anzac centre at Albany is desirable. But far more Australians will visit the Western Front than will visit Albany. The national commission wanted new memorials built to honour the Boer War and Australian peacekeeping, no doubt worthy proposals. Yet to give them priority at the 2014-18 centenary over a revitalisation of our Western Front presence is unthinkable and untenable.

There are plenty of monuments and we do not suggest any more. On the contrary, we suggest a new and permanent Australian presence on the Western Front for the benefit of millions of future visitors. And if the name Anzac is applied to any centre it should be a new Villers-Bretonneux living information centre, not - as the national commission proposed - a peace studies centre at the ANU.

People attracted to our proposal may suggest alternative sites, such as Pozieres, or Bullecourt, where Snowdon opened a small local museum last Anzac Day. But having carefully considered the possibilities, we think Villers-Bretonneux is the best location in terms of its history, recognition, centrality and high ground. But it does require more land from the French - not an impossible task for our diplomats.

There is a secondary Western Front priority for the centenary. Having visited on our battlefield tour the site of each of the five AIF Divisional Memorials (one in Belgium, four in France), we see they require attention. These concerns relate mainly to the surrounds: signposting and access roads. Given the funds devoted to war memorials in Australia, it is a mistake not to invest funds to honour the First AIF where it fought.

In supporting the concept we raise, Snowdon says existing museums are "doing a new job" but not "from an Australian perspective".

"There is a deeper enthusiasm than ever for engagement in personal stories and family history," he says. "People are focusing on Gallipoli and that's important. But once we get through the Gallipoli centenary I think we will see a great deal of renewed interest in Western Front events."

The power of the World War I story is the extent of its reach, via family ties, into many homes. Snowdon offers his personal account: "I think of my own life. I wasn't aware until two years ago that I had two great-uncles who died on the Western Front. I've since discovered that one of these men walked from the Snowy Mountains to Goulburn to get on a train to go to Sydney to embark and never come home.

"That puts it in context. We think of Afghanistan and Iraq, where we've sadly had too many deaths. But the prospect of losing 60,000 out of 400,000 is something we cannot contemplate. That loss marked us forever."

Last Anzac Day, Snowdon visited the rural village of Vignacourt, 12km north of Amiens, where allied troops had been billeted during the war. This is where hundreds of Australians had their photographs taken by a local French photographer and the recently rediscovered glass plate negatives have been bought by Kerry Stokes for the Australian War Memorial. "There were photographs of Australians everywhere," Snowdon says of his afternoon visit. "Then we walked to the local war cemetery - (I) mean not just us; the whole town walked to the cemetery."

For Australians who choose to walk on the Western Front the centenary should deliver a tangible, practical legacy in memory of those who fell.

The nation owes the men of the First AIF at least that much.


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