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Lest We Forget - The Western Front

22 May 2015
Stephen Brady AO CVO
Western Front memorial. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons (Aspdin) Creative Commons

Australia’s Ambassador to France Mr Stephen Brady AO CVO reflects on the ANZAC role on the Western Front and the sacrifice made by both nations in his ANZAC day speech. 

While the centenary of the Gallipoli landings was the focus of Anzac Day this year, a major announcement in France on that day recognised the war that awaited those who survived the horrors of the battle in Turkey.

A new memorial, commemorating the remarkable achievements of Sir John Monash – one of Australia’s greatest war leaders – will be built at the Australian National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux.

In his address on Anzac Day, standing in front of the Memorial, Australia’s Ambassador to France, HE Stephen Brady, told the story of Anzac through the eyes of one young man who left Gallipoli for a war front which was much worse…

Aujourd’hui, votre présence ici est le symbole de la solidarité entre la France et l’Australie et la Nouvelle Zélande.

Notre histoire partagée.

C’est un jour de solennité.

C’est un jour de réflexion.

Et dans la tranquillité du matin….

C’est un jour pour rendre hommage ensemble au sacrifice d’une génération disparue.

This morning, the people of France are joining millions of Australians and New Zealanders at memorials large and small, in towns and cities whose communities have upheld for close to a century the memory of those who left their homes to fight in a war half a world away.

One hundred years ago today, many of those who would go on to serve here, on the Western Front, took their first steps on the battlefields of Gallipoli.

Among those first Anzacs was Lance Corporal John Palmer who arrived in France in June 1916, having survived Gallipoli. A farmer prior to enlistment, John found France’s landscape, its villages and people, heightened the longing for a home not seen for more than a year. In a letter to his family, John wrote enthusiastically of the ‘luxurious growth’ and the abundance of fruit trees he encountered in France’s fertile countryside. Like many Australians who visited France then and now, he was in awe of its beauty.

But by August 1916, John’s war on the Western Front had begun in earnest. “This place,” he wrote “…is all a quiver. Gallipoli was bad enough, but this is ten times worse. If I get through this lot I shall take a ticket in the tats.”

His letters promise of a return home for the next harvest, but they also document the stark contrast between the beauty of the land and the impact of the war on its people:

“It’s a sight to see such a lot of mourning,” he wrote. “There is no mistake; France is making a great sacrifice. There are no young men about at all. If you do see one, he is in uniform. The women work the field with the help of the old men – about 80 not out.”

Such observations and empathy are common themes in the diaries and letters of Australians who fought on the Western Front. Every broken tree, every gutted house and ruined church was an inescapable reminder of the cost of the war to the people of France and Belgium.

This morning, we, like John Palmer, pause to reflect not just on our own loss in this campaign, but the profound affects of the war on the people who called this land home.

Together we stand before this memorial, to acknowledge the sacrifice of a now silent generation, to uphold their memories and to continue to strive toward the ideal for which they fought – peace.

This is an excerpt from a speech His Excellency Ambassador Stephen Brady gave on ANZAC day at the Villers-Bretonneux memorial in France.

Mr Stephen Brady AO CVO is Australia’s Ambassador to France with non-resident accreditation to Morocco, Monaco, Algeria and Mauritania. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.