MJ Edmunds
April 27, 2018 — By MJ Edmunds

The place he and many never left and where we will return

When the centre’s construction was announced I asked why? The current and previous prime ministers of Australia and Prince Charles were in northern France yesterday to mark Anzac Day at the centenary commemoration of the battle that saved the town of Villers-Bretonneux, and ultimately the city of Amiens. The troops were spurred to strive for […]

From the tower you get a sense of the scale of the battle fields. It was moving to see the bugler play here on Anzac Day

When the centre’s construction was announced I asked why?

The current and previous prime ministers of Australia and Prince Charles were in northern France yesterday to mark Anzac Day at the centenary commemoration of the battle that saved the town of Villers-Bretonneux, and ultimately the city of Amiens. The troops were spurred to strive for victory on the third Anzac Day and their success was a turning point of the allies campaign on the Western Front. When then Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced the construction of the Sir John Monash Centre the question I asked was why?

For me, going to Villers Bretonneux was always enough.
I had visited the Australian National Memorial many times to pay my respects to my great uncle. My grandmother had talked to me so much about her big brother Neil, who went to war and was killed at the age of 19 at Moquet Farm. It was the heartbreak of his mother’s life who kept writing, kept hoping, with his body not found, that he might return. Two years later she received a letter, kindly but firmly reporting that he could not have survived.

For the rest of her life my great-grandmother wore black

My grandmother always wanted to but was never able to travel from Tasmania to France.
It was different for me. Before living in the UK, I had struck up a friendship in Australia with a Frenchwoman who grew up near Amiens. She stayed at my home in Australia, and I stayed with her in Paris. When I met her family on their farm they made it their mission to broaden my cheese palate beyond Kraft cheddar and to ensure I could pay my respects to my fallen compatriots  whenever I wished. In the early hours of one Remembrance Day, I repaid their kindness by saving their house from a fire. We are family.

The respect in the Somme Valley and across the area that made up the Western Front for Australia’s role in The Great War is evident. The people I have met there are diligent archeologists of ancient times, proudly respectful of their allies, each year staging a sound and light pageant that traverses their history far beyond the Great War.
For me the connections to this place already ran so deep, I had interpreted it for myselfI can’t recall the number of visits I have made over the years. I felt the new $100m Centre was not needed.

It was only when I climbed the tower, where the bugler played on Anzac Day, that I started to soften my stance about the new

In 2016, I visited Villers-Bretonneux again.  Construction roads and plant surrounded the site, and a red crane could be seen behind the Edwin Lutyens-designed memorial. But the garden and walls were unchanged.

It was only when I climbed the tower, where the bugler played yesterday, that I started to soften my stance about the new centre. In the time since then my teen daughter has placed flowers at Villers-Bretonneux for her great-great uncle. Perhaps for her generation who will never speak to anyone who corresponded with and suffered the direct loss, digital interpretation will be valuable.
I could see the new centre would not break any view. This was important. Its impact would be within the space, and is within each of us whom this touches. I saw a huge hole dug into the ground in 2016, A hundred years ago there were trenches containing men, lice, rats and mud which the French prime minister, Edouard Philippe delivered with evident care.

Yesterday I felt pride to watch the ceremony. I heard names read of people who had travelled there to  place wreaths and pay their respects. I wished I was there but remembered how I felt in 1985 as I took every detail in to write to my grandmother. Those people are all gone and yet are part of us. My grandmother’s stories of her brother will never leave me. Our children go, and are not made to.

Why do we still observe this, and build such a centre, and why we don’t abandon this to newer causes? Those were different times. Individuals might make different choices now, might not sign-up. We don’t feel the pressure now as individuals to joined the defence force. We can’t imagine the pressures ordinary people felt to go to war.
There is no pressure on me to return to Villers-Bretonneux. But I will. My feelings don’t dim, they deepen.
Marian Edmunds