PM, ABBOTT UNITE TO HONOUR WESTERN FRONT HEROES
The Sir John Monash Centre will open a gateway to explore Australia’s military past
Next week, on the eve of Anzac Day, one of Tony Abbott’s finest visions for Australia will be realised. The Sir John Monash Centre — Abbott’s plan to create an enduring visitor and information centre and museum on the Western Front — will be opened by Malcolm Turnbull.
The centre exists only because of Abbott’s drive as prime minister, his defiance of conventional wisdom about war commemoration and his conviction the World War I centenary should revive the historical memory of the Western Front as the greatest focus of human sacrifice and military achievement in our history.
It is Abbott who chose to name the centre after Australia’s most successful soldier, Monash. He decided on the location on high ground sharing the site with the Australian National Memorial outside the French village of Villers-Bretonneux. The town straddles the city of Amiens, a critical transport hub during the war and famous for its cathedral, the largest gothic structure in France.
Turnbull has invited Abbott to attend next week, an appropriate gesture. The centre will be opened on the evening of April 24 by Turnbull, with French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe in attendance, given the absence of President Emmanuel Macron who is in Washington ahead of his visit to Australia starting on May 1. The dawn service the next morning will honour the battle of Villers-Bretonneux that occurred, by an extraordinary coincidence, during the third Anzac Day in 1918.
Interviewed by The Australian, Abbott said Turnbull’s invitation to him was “gracious” — and Turnbull, in turn, recognises the historical import of the event.
“Often, government these days is a response to daily events and not much tends to make a lasting difference,” Abbott said. “But this project is something that will endure as long as our country lasts. I am pleased and proud this is now happening. It is a lasting legacy from my time in government.”
The special bond between Villers-Bretonneux and Australia originates in the formidable German offensive of March 1918 designed to win the war before US forces arrived in numbers. The Germans broke through, threatened Amiens, and took VillersBretonneux on April 24, only to succumb to an Australian-dominated counter-attack the next day, an operation hailed as one of the Australian Imperial Force’s finest efforts of the war.
It was a rare fusion of fast planning and brilliant execution. One of the Australian commanders, Brigadier-General Harold “Pompey” Elliott, said: “The fight became a soldiers’ fight purely and simply. The success was due to the energy and determination of the junior commanders and the courage of the troops.”
Military historian Peter Ped- ersen said: “Saving Villers-Bretonneux meant saving Amiens, which thrust the town on to centre stage and forever associated the Australians with it.” Monash said: “There is no spot on the tortured soil of France which is more associated with Australian history and the triumph of Australian soldiers than Villers-Bretonneux.”
While there are other battle sites such as Pozieres — where the nation lost 23,000 men in seven weeks — with a far greater sacrifice, Villers-Bretonneux, where the death toll numbered 1464, has kept its hold on the collective mind. This is because of the valour of the troops, their recognition by other Allied leaders and because Villers-Bretonneux opened the path to the greatest series of victories in our military history.
Upwards of 8000 people are expected to attend the dawn service this year. Abbott as prime minister visited the site in June 2014 before construction began and imposed a completion timetable of Anzac Day 2018, a deadline that remarkably has been met.
It was Abbott and his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, who forced through budget approval, cut through bureaucracy and imposed their vision on the decision-making system. Otherwise, the project had zero prospects. “All credit to the French,” Abbott said. “Getting this from conception to completion in just 3½ years is amazing.”
The centre will be a focal point for many decades for the thousands of Australian and international tourists visiting France, many of whom have family links with the AIF troops and more than 46,000 Australians who lost their lives on the Western Front, a death toll that dwarfs any other theatre in our history. During the war most Australian families had some connection with events on the Western Front through kinship, neighbours or friends.
The centre is tucked behind the magnificent memorial designed by British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens containing the names of more than 10,000 Australians missing on the Western Front and opened in 1938 by King George VI.
The $99 million centre, a 90- minute drive from Paris, was built by French contractors according to the design of the Australian firm Cox Architecture. It aims to provide what has been missing for Australians on the Western Front — an inclusive interpretative centre and information hub as an entry guide to the battlefield and commemorative experience.
The internals of the 1000sq m building involve a multimedia interpretative and immersive gallery experience and hi-tech innovations to bring the Western Front to vivid life — but this has been subject to a dispute between the Department of Veterans Affairs, responsible for the project, and the Australian War Memorial, with expertise in museum curation.
Explaining his thinking at the time, Abbott said: “Overlooking our role on the Western Front has been a case of historical amnesia. I believe this decision will help to shape our country into the future. As a nation we have not given sufficient attention to our role on the Western Front where Australian forces made a disproportionate contribution to what proved to be, in the end, a great victory. Australians should be at least as familiar with the story of the Western Front as we are with Gallipoli.”
Monash’s name is forever tied to the Western Front story. As commander of the 3rd Division, he played a prominent role over March and April 1918 in halting the German offensive. He was then given the ultimate prize — command of the Australian Corps and all five divisions despite scheming against him, much inspired by his Jewish heritage. And finally he was a prime mover in the great Allied offensive launched on August 8 spearheaded by the Australians and Canadians as part of the British Fourth Army that led to a series of decisive victories and contributions to wider Allied successes culminating in the Armistice on November 11.
In his message to all ranks on August 7, Monash wrote: “For the first time in the history of this corps, all five Australian divisions will tomorrow engage in the largest and most important battle operation ever undertaken by the corps … I earnestly wish every soldier of the corps the best of good fortune, and a glorious and decisive victory, the story of which will re-echo throughout the world and will live for ever in the history of our homeland.”
Monash was unrivalled among Australian generals for his intellect, planning, strategic sense and personal drive, though his flaws were apparent: a craving for status and acceptance, and exaggeration of his own and his men’s achievements. His biographer, Geoffrey Serle, wrote: “In the 1920s Monash was broadly accepted, not just in Victoria, as the greatest living Australian. He was one tall poppy who was never cut down.”
War commemoration is now a modern industry tied to family, nation and the emotional life, and Villers-Bretonneux is a measure of its cosmopolitanism. Small parts of the world belong to Australia by dint of commemorative grant, by blood, by graveyards.
The French people have declared for 100 years their desire to share their town with Australia — the Australian flags, the kangaroo symbols, the street names and the famous school sign reading “Do Not Forget Australians” measure their enduring appreciation of the men of the AIF. Every road you travel here is filled with its Australian stories. The French have not forgotten. Australians, in turn, should see the Monash Centre as the chance to reignite their own memories.
‘Overlooking our role on the Western Front has been a case of historical amnesia’ TONY ABBOTT FORMER PRIME MINISTER