Villers-Bretonneux has never forgotten Australia. In April 1918, against all odds, two Australian brigades helped liberate the French town from the Germans, at a cost of 1200 killed.
The Australian flag still flies over Villers-Bretonneux. A plaque outside the town hall tells the story of the events of 1918, and kangaroos feature over the building’s entrance. The main street is named Rue de Melbourne.
The children of Villers-Bretonneux are especially indebted to Australia. After the war, it was money collected by schoolchildren in Victoria that paid for the rebuilding of the town’s school. It was named Victoria School and a permanent plaque on the school façade recalls the diggers’ sacrifice.
That is why the town launched a fundraiser in February to raise money for bushfire relief. An online fundraising page has received donations from more than 800 people. The town also organised a solidarity march on 2 February. Almost 1,000 people braved the winter weather and walked from the town centre to the Australian National Memorial and Sir John Monash Centre. There the local school choir sang a song specially written for the appeal, entitled ‘Australia, Stop Burning’.
‘Everyone here was talking about the fires, and we were all appalled,’ Mayor Patrick Simon told a News Corp reporter.
By late February, some $37,000 had been collected by the town. Mayor Simon said some of the raised funds would be donated to the firefighters of Robinvale, an Australian town that has been twinned with Villers-Bretonneux since the First World War when the son of Robinvale’s founding family was killed in air combat near Villers-Bretonneux. The rest of the funds will be donated to the Bega Valley Shire, identified as an area particularly devastated by the bushfires.
The children in the local school drew pictures of the fires, which will be displayed in the town’s Franco-Australian Museum. Some were sent to fire brigades across Australia.
Many other fundraisers have taken place elsewhere in northern France, including a solidarity run in Vignacourt, which raised more than $8,000. A number of small villages, the town of Amiens and the Hauts-de-France region have all committed different donation amounts directed at either wildlife or replanting associations. Various concerts have been held throughout the region and local associations have knitted and sewn blankets and pouches for the affected wildlife.
These remarkable acts of generosity further reinforce the strong bonds that have existed between Australia and this region of France for more than a century.
Photo: Residents of Villers-Bretonneux taking part in a solidarity march to show their support for Australian communities affected by the bushfires.