On war's path

Villages at key Western Front sites are preparing for Anzac Day ceremonies, writes Stuart Forster.

Anzac Day commemorations are associated most intimately with Gallipoli, where the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps first saw major action in World War I. Yet during the course of that war, from 1914 to 1918, far more Australians were deployed on Europe's Western Front and ceremonies will also be held at two locations in northern France on April 25.

The largest event will be the dawn remembrance ceremony at the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, a village 112 kilometres north of Paris.

"Usually for the dawn service there's about 4500 [attendees]; it could be more, about 5000," the project liaison officer for the Australian Department of Veterans' Affairs in France and Belgium, Rodney Muir, says.

The first such event was held in 2008, marking the 90th anniversary of the battle. Australian troops captured Villers-Bretonneux during a costly night attack on April 24-25, 1918, denying the German army a chance to move on to the strategically important city of Amiens, 16 kilometres to the west. The anniversary of the battle will also be marked by a wreath-laying ceremony in the village.

The countryside of northern France is dotted with war cemeteries and memorials for those who fell in what became known as "the war to end all wars". There were 290,000 Australians serving on the Western Front between 1916 and 1918. Of those, 46,000 died and more than 100,000 were injured. The names of 10,765 Australians without known graves are inscribed at the Australian National Memorial, which King George VI opened on July 22, 1938.

Visitors looking closely will see the memorial's 32-metre tower is pockmarked by bullets fired during World War II, which was declared little more than a year after that sombre royal ceremony.

The quiet village of Bullecourt, about an hour's drive from Villers-Bretonneux, will also host Anzac Day ceremonies. On April 9, 1917, the Allies launched the Battle of Arras offensive; Bullecourt lay on the Hindenburg Line, a network of German bunkers and trenches named after field marshal Paul von Hindenburg.

More than 10,000 men of the Australian Imperial Force died fighting for Bullecourt during two separate battles in April and May 1917.

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That sacrifice is immortalised symbolically by the Bullecourt Digger, a bronze statue by Melbourne sculptor Peter Corlett. It stands in the Australian Memorial Park, just off the Rue des Australiens. The simple yet touching Slouch Hat Memorial, sculpted by Roy McPherson, can also be seen in the village, along with an inscription in memory of the British and Australians who died.

Wreath-laying ceremonies are planned at the Commonwealth and French war memorials in Bullecourt, and the Musee Jean et Denise Letaille de Bullecourt 1917 will be officially reopened. The museum began as a private project to show artefacts collected from the battlefields of Bullecourt by a resident, Jean Letaille.

The museum closed last year for refurbishment and to install

interpretive displays.

The reopening of the museum forms part of a strategy to establish an Australian Remembrance Trail along sites of interest on the Western Front, before the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. The Department of Veterans' Affairs is working with French and Belgian authorities and local communities to develop the trail, so people can better understand and appreciate the contribution and sacrifice of Australians.

Other sites along the trail will include Fromelles, Le Hamel, Mont St Quentin near Peronne, Pozieres, Ypres and Zonnebeke. Each location saw fighting with national significance in terms of Australia's war effort or casualties suffered. As for history, the trail spans the introduction of Australians to fighting on the Western Front at Fromelles, in July 1916, to the capture of important German positions on the Somme in the Battle of Mont St Quentin, on August 31, 1918.

The Musee Jean et Denise Letaille de Bullecourt 1917, 1 rue d'Arras, Bullecourt, +33 3 2148 9246. To register interest in attending Anzac Day commemorations in France, see franceregistration.com.

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