Today is Anzac Day here in Australia (and for our neighbours in New Zealand), and I've been thinking back to the day I was privileged to visit the little village of Villers Bretonneux in Northern France - Armistice Day , 11th November 2005.
Here is what I wrote at the time....
Today Boak and I marched in the Armistice Day parade in the village of Villers Bretonneux.
Forget our Anzac Day parades – the French do things a little differently. At least in this little backwater.
If you missed school the day they did the Great War, this village was saved from the German advance by Australian troops in both April (coincidentally on 25th) and September 1918 – and they’ve never forgotten this. The links with our country are very strong. V-B is twinned with Robinvale in Victoria, the Australian flag flies beside the French, and even the town hall is embellished with kangaroos! Australian visitors, we found too, are soon spotted.
Like yesterday, today was overcast and around 11 degrees, and with the wind chill factor I really needed the gear that has become my Somme “uniform” – warm slacks, a spencer, jumper and two coats, a woolly scarf, and a beret pulled down over my ears. As well, just for the occasion, I wore my Aussie flag socks (thank you, Megan) under my boots. Of course no-one could see them, but they did give me the warm fuzzies!
With our Australian flag flapping from the car aerial, we arrived in the town square just in time for the parade to begin.
Next came the tracksuit-clad Twirling group (baton twirlers), the youngest tot only about 4! The 4 regimental flags were carried next, then 5 gendarmes, and the 6 Sapeurs Pompiers (fire brigade) brought up the rear, the only group even trying to keep in formation. When the few dozen townsfolk followed on, we decided to do things the French way and join in. Down the street we processed with our little band, oompah-ing and shuffling, smiling and greeting everyone with a “Bonjour”, scooping up strays along the way.
The first stop was the WWII memorial (Aussie flag flying beside the French one) where the tiniest Twirler was helped to lay a wreath, we had a minute’s silence, and then the local glee club sang “La Marseillaise”. Then, after re-forming, we all moved off along a different road to the WWI memorial (yes, another Aussie flag proudly flying with the French). Another wreath was laid, another minute of silence, and another Marseillaise warbled by the singers. The only difference was that this time the names of the dead, from both wars, were read out. A very moving experience, especially as we heard many with the same surnames. The whole exercise had taken just about 35 minutes from start to finish! It was now around 11.15am so we all adjourned to the local multipurpose hall where the mayor took the microphone, thanked all the participants (especially congratulating the singers on their “enthusiastic” rendering of the national anthem), and invited everyone to join in refreshments. There being neither sun nor yardarm, we all hopped into the champagne and cassis.
Though they couldn’t speak English, people welcomed us with warm smiles, one man proudly pointing to his collection of Australian pins on his lapel, and the President of the Franco-Australian Association came over and introduced himself to us. Like Boak, he also had an Order of Australia award, and recognized the medals Boak was wearing.