There is no doubt that this recently introduced commemorative service on the Western Front to commemorate the ANZAC soldiers is very much an event to attend, and so much easier to get to than the Gallipoli peninsula.
This year, Backroads Touring will again be running a 6-Day Anzacs on the Western Front tour and new ANZAC Weekend Tour that includes the Dawn Service at Villers-Bretonneux on 25th April. There is no doubt that this recently introduced commemorative service is very much an event to attend, and so much easier to get to than the Gallipoli peninsula.
First arranged in 2008, to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the AIF retaking the town of Villers-Bretonneux, coincidently on 25th April 1918, the service has gone from strength to strength. Organised jointly by the French and Australian Embassy in Paris, the ceremony commences from around 3.30 am, as the first groups arrive at the Australian National War Memorial at the rear of the military cemetery outside Villers-Bretonneux. It’s cold and maybe wet, but the subtle lighting and the French and Australian flags at half mast draw people to the seating area near to the memorial, where nearly 11,000 Australians who died in France during the First World War and have no known grave are commemorated.
The crowd grows and there is a solemn air of expectancy as people of all ages hunker down with blankets to keep out the chill air; however, there are always the more hardy, dressed in shorts and sandals, although this is no beach party and the atmosphere is respectful.
Right on time, the ceremony commences, lasting for just over an hour, with prayers, readings, wreath laying and the playing of the Last Post until, as you would expect, the sun emerges over the horizon and at least lights the area – bathing it with warmth would be too much to ask at this latitude at this time of year.
Many people remain close to the Memorial for some time, absorbing the atmosphere and the magnitude of what these soldiers achieved so far from home; others may have their own thoughts of friends or relatives who have served in more recent conflicts, or who are perhaps still serving somewhere in a troubled part of the world. Others go to read the inscriptions on the wreaths or see if they can find the name of a long gone, but not forgotten relative on the wall.
Slowly the crowds begin to move back to their cars, buses and coaches, past the two national flags, now fully raised. For many this will be the end of a pilgrimage, for others, the beginning of a period to explore, learn and experience what life was like, not only for their fellow countrymen, but all the soldiers who fought during one of the greatest conflicts of humankind.
The ANZAC Day service on Monday 25th April 2011 promises to be well attended and a memorable day. Join Backroads Touring as they offer you a full 3 day battlefield tour, including important areas in Flanders and Northern France for both Australians and New Zealanders. It’s a very special time.
Written by Mark Banning, 2010