Australian Remembrance Trail along the Western Front
The central place of Gallipoli in the Australian story has to date overshadowed the far greater achievements of the Australians who fought on the Western Front in France and Belgium. Their story is one of triumph and tragedy, of unimaginable losses to a young nation and an extraordinary part in the course of history.
In the 2009-10 Federal Budget, the Government committed $10 million to develop, in partnership with French and Belgian regional and local authorities, a Trail for completion by the Centenary, which will allow Australian and other visitors to interpret the Australian experience of war on the Western Front. It was decided not to establish a single national interpretative centre – the model employed by Britain at Thiepval and by Canada at Vimy. Instead, the Australian Remembrance Trail builds upon the existing efforts of French and Belgian communities to commemorate Australian service, some of which date back to the 1920s. The Trail spans much of the nearly 200 kilometres of the Western Front where Australians served: from the Channel coast of Belgium to Montebrehain in France.
The Trail will constitute a comprehensive and easily accessible set of materials and options to inform and guide visitors of all ages, levels of fitness and varying amounts of time to travel. Subject to the traveler’s available time, visitors will be able to view some or most of the principal areas in which Australians fought, visit high quality interpretative centres presenting Australian material, and access related sites of Australian interest. The interpretative materials presented assume no prior knowledge of the subject and will be available in a mix of traditional and digital media formats. The Trail and associated materials will provide ample opportunity for contemplative reflection.
In a partnership approach, funded equally by Australia and France, the project will deliver, in time for the Centenary, the following:
- A new museum at Fromelles, adjacent to the Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery, to be opened in 2013. This museum will tell the story of the Australia’s first battle in France, the disastrous 1916 Battle of Fromelles. It will also tell the story of the 2009 recovery from Pheasant Wood of the remains of 250 Australian and British soldiers who died at Fromelles in 1916, and their reinterment and commemoration in the Fromelles War Cemetery. Nearby, are the existing Cobbers memorial, and V.C. Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial.
- A new museum at Bullecourt, building on the efforts of Jean Letaille, OAM. This new museum opened on Anzac Day 2012 and tells the story of the two bloody battles fought by Australians at Bullecourt in April and May 1917. Since the opening of the new museum visitation has increased 400%. Nearby in the Bullecourt Memorial Park is the Digger memorial, site of an Australian Government led ANZAC Day service.
- At Pozieres, where Australia sustained 23,000 casualties in little over six weeks in 1916, improved visitor facilities will provide new interpretation, parking, traffic access, toilet and picnic facilities. A number of walks, supported by both traditional signage and digital media will encompass points of significance including the 1st Division Memorial, the Gibraltar blockhouse captured by Australians, and the Windmill site, ‘a ridge more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other spot on earth.’
- At Villers-Bretonneux an extension to and major refurbishment of the Franco Australian Museum which commemorate the decisive battle fought there by Australians on the night of 24-25 April 1918. Located within the Victoria School which was built with money raised in Australia after the War, the museum also honours the remarkable relationship between the town and Australia which continues to this day. Close by are the Australian National Memorial, site of the Australian Government led ANZAC Day dawn service, and the Adelaide Cemetery, from where the Unknown Soldier was disinterred before his reinterment in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra in 1993. Major roadworks and parking facilities to improve visitor safety and access at the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux will also be undertaken.
- At Mont St Quentin and Peronne, working in partnership with l’Historial de la Grande Guerre, the Trail will deliver materials which will allow visitors to interpret the battles for the Mont and Peronne, considered by many to be among the greatest achievements of the Australian Army in the War.
- The Trail incorporates the existing Australian Corps Memorial at Le Hamel which commemorates and interprets the 4 July 1918 Battle of le Hamel, fought by the Australian Corps, led for the first time by General John Monash. This ‘model victory’ which would become the template for future Allied operations on the Western Front.
In Belgium, the Australian Government has contributed to:
- A new interpretative centre at Ploegsteert, to be opened in 2013 which focuses on the Australian contribution to the Battle of Messines. Located adjacent to the Ploegsteert Memorial, the new centre is also close to Toronto Avenue Cemetery, the only all Australian cemetery in Belgium.
- A new Australian display at the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917, in Zonnebeke, to be opened in 2013. Nearby is Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in the world, which incorporates several wartime German blockhouses captured by Australians.
- The In Flanders Fields Museum at Ieper (Ypres) which reopened in 2012 after a major refurbishment has incorporated new Australian content. A short walk away is the Menin Gate Memorial, site of the moving Last Post Ceremony each evening and a remarkable point at which to start or finish a visit to the Western Front.
The project, which will be self-sustaining in French and Belgian hands on completion, also provides for a web based Virtual Visitors’ Centre. The Virtual Visitors’ Centre will provide for Trail audio, imagery and other materials to be accessed by all forms of digital devices, including mobile phones by both visitors to the former Western Front and Australians and others at home.