The site of Villers-Bretonneux became strongly associated with the Australians after 1918, when in both April and August Australian units were involved in battles here. In Spring 1918 the Germans pushed forward in their major offensive, Operation Michael. On the 24th of April, they captured Villers-Bretonneux itself. The Australians and British retook it within 24 hours.
On the 8th of August, a major Allied offensive marked a real turning point in the war, and the Australians were again in action near Villers-Bretonneux, advancing some five miles that day. After the war, Villers-Bretonneux was ‘adopted’ by Melbourne. The city sent aid for the towns reconstruction, and a park in the town was named ‘Melbourne’ in its honour.
Villers-Bretonneux is found to the south-west of the main 1916 battle areas, about 15 miles south-west of Albert and ten miles east of Amiens. The Australian Memorial, Villers-Brettoneux Military Cemetery and the Sir John Monash Centre (which opened in 2018) are all located on the same site. The site is north of the town of Villers-Bretonneux itself on the D23. The D23 is a fast road, and the turning into the parking area in front of the cemetery and memorial comes a little suddenly, so beware of other cars behind you. There is now a new building at the side of the car park, where toilets are located.
Villers-Bretonneux Australian Memorial
After parking, the cemetery is reached first, with the Stone of Remembrance at the entrance. The cemetery is laid out so that there is a wide grassed central walkway with graves either side and the memorial beyond is framed by the rows of trees that stand either side amongst the graves.
About halfway down the cemetery the large Cross of Sacrifice is located and continuing along leads to two flagpoles where the Australian Flag and the French tricolour flutter. Across an expanse of lawn is the memorial itself, in the form of a tower with a rising sun set above the doorway, flanked with walls lined with panels where the names of the missing. The walls extend slightly out from the ends of the main wall, with small loggias at each end. By the base of the tower, there is a round plaque with a map showing the locations of Australian memorials in France and Belgium.
There is also a stone tablet which recalls that this area was again the scene of fighting during World War Two. The memorial here was damaged in that fighting. At one stage, German tanks and a Messerschmitt opened fire on the memorial tower, where Senegalese troops had set up a machine-gun. The scars from battle damage are apparent at several places, including on the main tower as can be seen in the photos below.
The memorial is to commemorate all the Australians who died in France and Belgium in the Great War, and especially those who died in France (apart from at Fromelles) and whose graves are not known. There are some 10,700 men named on the panels that stretch either side of the tower which is the central feature of the memorial. These are not all the Australians with no known grave: around 5,000 more are listed on the Menin Gate at Ypres and another 1,300 at VC Corner at Fromelles.
Whilst the Australians were among the first to make their battle memorials permanent, the Memorial to their soldiers here was not inaugurated until July 1938, when King George VI unveiled it. By this time, Europe was on the cusp of a second great conflict, and the storm-clouds of war were gathering again.
Prior to the unveiling, the King and the royal party arrived at Villers-Bretonneux station where they were met by the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, Sir Earle Page. At the ceremony, President Lebrun and the French cabinet were present as well as other Australian ministers, British government and military officials and the Bishop of Amiens.
During the unveiling ceremony on the 22nd of July 1938, the King said “What we see before us is more than a tribute to the gallant service of a splendid army; it is also a symbol…….the gateway through which Australia passed from youth to manhood. The long and glorious record of their later achievements hold none more resounding than those which link their name with Villers-Bretonneux. This ridge on which we stand surveyed those hard-fought actions, and the monument which crowns it will commemorate them for all time“. After releasing the two flags which had until then covered the entrance to the memorial tower, the King placed a wreath on the base of the memorial.
The central tower of the memorial is 103 feet high, and views from the top of the memorial on a clear day are spectacular, revealing the regular layout of the cemetery below, the Sir John Monash Centre to the rear, as well as the countryside stretching away into the distance.
At the top of the memorial is a chamber containing a round stone compass dial with arrows pointing in the direction of sites relevant to Australians. These include Pozieres, 15 miles away (where the Australian 1st Division Memorial stands), Ypres and Fromelles (69 and 53 miles away respectively) where more names of Australians with no known grave are listed. Further afield still are Gallipolli and Canberra (10,488 miles away). The video below shows the 360-degree views from the top of the memorial.
The Unknown Australian Soldier’s body was brought here after it was exhumed from Adelaide Cemetery (see later on this page) in November 1993. The body was first taken here to Villers-Bretonneux; then to Ypres where it lay in state in the Cloth Hall. The next day the body was returned here to Villers-Bretonneux for the local community to pay their respects. The body was then flown to Canberra. It was reinterred in the Australian War Memorial there on the 11th of November 1993. An information panel at the memorial here at Villers-Bretonneux describes this. Another contains the text of the speech given by Prime Minister Keating at the funeral service which was held in Canberra.
Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery
After descending from the tower, the view back from its base to the cemetery is also impressive. The cemetery was not made until after the Armistice, and the first twenty plots were in place by 1920. These burials were almost all of Australian soldiers who had died in the period between April and August 1918.
There is a Ross Bastiaan bronze panel placed at the left-hand far end of the cemetery, before the lawned area that leads to the memorial. This was unveiled by the Honourable Bill Hayden, Governor-General of Australia on the 30th of August 1993. It has a relief map showing Villers-Bretonneux and the area, and also gives some information on the Australians in the Great War in both English and French.
The cemetery now contains 2,142 burials or commemorations, with 609 of these being unidentified. One VC winner is buried here: French-Canadian John Brillant. 779 of the known graves are of Australians, so today this is by no means an exclusively Australian cemetery.
Graves from several other cemeteries were relocated here after the Armistice. Among them were 444 graves moved here from Dury Hospital Military Cemetery. This was located by the Asylum near the road (today the N1) which led south from Amiens to Dury. One of these was Private Frederick Sheridan from New South Wales, now buried in Plot 14 grave BB7. Frederick died aged 34 just eight days before the Armistice, but he was not killed or action nor did he die from his wounds. Although he had been quite badly wounded by a shell at Flers in November 1916, he recovered and returned to action but was taken to hospital ill on the 29th of October 1918 and died of bronchial-pneumonia five days later.
Frederick had a somewhat chequered military career, being deprived of pay on several occasions for being absent without leave (once as long as two weeks). He was also punished for insolence and breaking custody. In February 1928 his sister, Emily Roffe, was sent a letter explaining that his body had been moved from the cemetery at Dury to Villers-Bretonneux. The letter explained that this was done because “in order to reach Dury Hospital Military Cemetery visitors were compelled to pass through the grounds of a French Lunatic Asylum where the inmates were at work”. The letter explains that French graves located there were also moved and this was the “only practicable way of overcoming the difficulty”.
The memorial and cemetery at Villers-Bretonneux is in a beautiful setting and is worth visiting for the breath-taking views of the battlefields which can be gained from the top of the memorial and also to remember the men from Australia who came, fought and often died here.
Sir John Monash Centre
There had been initial moves to construct an Australian visitor centre in this area in the late 1990s, but these came to nothing. However, as the centenary years of the Great War approached, there was increased interest again. The project was commissioned in 2006, with construction starting in 2016.
In April 2018, the Sir John Monash Centre was opened and is a welcome addition to the visitor centres already in place on the Somme battlefields, such as those at Thiepval and at the Newfoundland Memorial Park near Beaumont Hamel.
The Sir John Monash Centre features a mixture of traditional exhibits with modern touchscreen interactive technology, as well as a large central audiovisual display with information about the fighting here and on the Australians who fought. The Centre is set partially sunken into the ground, and on either side are benches with a view of the rear of the Memorial itself, and which show information on the Australian Divisions which fought.
There are other cemeteries in the area nearby, and Adelaide Cemetery is close and well worth a visit if you are in the area.
Adelaide Cemetery is reached by travelling south from the Australian Memorial on the D23, then turning right onto the D1089 towards Amiens. The cemetery is just a little way along this road on the right-hand side. This is a major route and busy, so again take care when pulling off to park. A narrow track leads up to the cemetery which is set a little way back from the road.
The cemetery was started during the war, in June 1918, but by the Armistice, there were only 90 graves (making up most of what is now Plot 1, at the front of the cemetery). Several hundred more graves were concentrated here after the Armistice, and these are all soldiers who died between March and September 1918. They were moved from small cemeteries and isolated burials around this area. With very few exceptions, the graves of British and Canadian soldiers are to be found in Plot 2, whilst Australians are buried in the graves which make up Plot 3. There are four special memorials to men known or believed to be buried here. Altogether, there are now 955 burials here, with 694 of these being identified.
The cemetery is where the body of the Australian Unknown Soldier was exhumed from on the 2nd of November 1993. He was originally buried in Plot 3, M13, and there is now an explanatory ‘headstone’ marking this position (shown below).
Another feature of this cemetery is the superb floral displays. It is always a highlight of any visit to a CWGC maintained cemetery to see the care that is taken over these graves. This respect a century after the war is heart-warming. The gardeners and other workers who support these cemeteries do an amazing job.
Stories of Some Buried at Adelaide Cemetery
As always, there are stories behind those who lie here. Below are just a few.
Private John Anderson was born in Edinburgh Scotland. He was originally buried ‘500 yards south of Villers-Bretonneux’, and his grave must have been one of those moved here after the Armistice, although the exact location is now lost. His name is therefore commemorated by one of the Special Memorials at the back of the cemetery. Anderson was killed in action with the 50th Battalion on the 25th of April 1918. Before embarking for service overseas he made a simple three-line will bequeathing everything to his sister Clara Millar.
He also left three children, and as their mother had died earlier, they were now orphans. In June 1921 his son received a letter explaining that a ‘memorial cross’ had been erected in Adelaide Cemetery, as ‘while it is known to the Graves Commission that the remains of your father are interred in the above-named cemetery it has not been possible to identify the actual grave”. The special memorial headstone which bears his name today is the permanent replacement of the original wooden memorial cross. The papers in his file show his age on enlistment as 39, so it is likely that the age given on his special memorial stone of 50 is a transcription error.
Another Australian soldier, Private Charlie Barnard, was wounded in the chest by machine-gun fire. This happened early in the morning of the 1st of August 1918 whilst he was on patrol near Villers-Bretonneux. He was taken to the Advanced Dressing Station located in a railway tunnel west of the town and died the same day from his wounds. He was just 20 years old, and the inscription on his headstone reads “Father and brothers are proud of you dear Charlie, doing your duty”.
Charles Henry Williams was born in Putney, London, and had enlisted in the AIF for the second time in 1916 at the age of 37. He had been discharged as medically unfit with suspected tuberculosis just a short time before. Prior to the Great War, he had many years of previous military experience. He had served with the Coldstream Guards for 12 years, and then the French Foreign Legion for another five. At 6 foot 1 inch, he was tall for his time and sported a number of tattoos including one of Buffalo Bill on one forearm.
After being promoted to Lance Corporal in September 1917, he was reduced to the ranks just four months later for drunkenness and striking a superior officer. He was killed in action on the 4th of May 1918 and awarded the Military Medal around the same time. He was originally buried in an isolated gave just under a mile west of Villers-Bretonneux. In 1924 his remains were moved here to Adelaide Cemetery. His mother survived him as the short inscription on his headstone shows.
There are many more brave men buried here, and a story for each one of them. Despite this cemetery being located very near to the main road between Amiens and St Quentin, it is surprisingly peaceful. The traffic can be heard, but so too can birds singing, and the setting is truly memorable for those who visit it- whether they come from a few miles away or the other side of the world.
Sources & Acknowledgements
Martin & Mary Middlebrook: Somme Battlefields
National Archives of Australia
The Times archives