The Sir John Monash Cen­tre will open a gate­way to ex­plore Aus­tralia’s mil­i­tary past

The Australian - - COMMENTARY - PAUL KELLY EDI­TOR-AT-LARGE Paul Kelly was a mem­ber of 2014 ad­vi­sory panel to the Ab­bott gov­ern­ment on op­tions for West­ern Front com­mem­o­ra­tion.

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

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