French town remains grateful to diggers
LLOYD JONES | AAP EUROPE CORRESPONDENT | VILLERS-BRETONNEUX APRIL 24 2017
When Anne Brassart was a child in the French town of Villers-Bretonneux she knew the nearby World War I memorial was designated Australian territory and would shout out she was "in Australia" when she jumped across the boundary.
Decades on she married an Australian and taught him the strong bond that Villers-Bretonneux still maintains with Australia after diggers nearly a century ago successfully defended the town from a German offensive.
On Sunday, with Melbourne-born husband Peter Evans, she visited the Australian memorial site and remembered her childhood playing with friends in the surrounding fields and woods.
The hilltop site on Tuesday will be the scene of the main Anzac Day dawn service in France, with thousands of Australians and locals expected to attend.
Ms Brassart told AAP she and her friends would shout "Je suis en Australie" ("I am in Australia") when they jumped onto the memorial site when they were children growing up in the aftermath of World War II.
But the town does not forget the devastation of the previous 1914-18 war and the role Australian soldiers played in defending them in the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux in 1918.
On Sunday, the Rue de Melbourne was decked with Australian flags draped from the lamp posts, while cut-out image of kangaroos, koalas and platypus adorned the front lawn of the town hall.
The town is also grateful to the Australian state of Victoria for funding and building a new school in a post-war project in which Victorian children were asked to donate a penny each towards the goal.
The Victoria School teaches its pupils to sing Waltzing Matilda, has wood panelling carved with Australian animals and features a sign in the playground saying "Do Not Forget Australia".
Ms Brassart told AAP there had always been a dedicated group of people in Villers-Bretonneux "who admired what the Australians had done and wanted to continue to show their gratefulness".
Following the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009, in which the town of Strathewen lost its school, the people of Villers-Bretonneux raised $A30,000 towards the school's recovery.
Mr Evans, 70, said that when his wife was president of the town's Franco-Australian Association in 2007-09 she had elderly Australians coming up to her saying they remembered giving a penny to help build the school.
"So there's a living connection if you like," said Mr Evans, who lives with his wife near Montpellier in southern France.
Mr Evans will be joined at Tuesday's dawn service by his son Paul, from Perth, who told AAP it would be cold and uncomfortable but that was part of showing respect to those who sacrificed their lives.
"We live very comfortable lives these days and just to recognise that the boys, few of them were over the age of 25 or so, gave their lives for us to live the lives that we live today."
AAP IMAGE/AMELIA ROMANOS 2016