French honour World War I ANZAC Day
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For Australians and New Zealanders, it’s a sobering day of popular remembrance. In France, however, the local significance of ANZAC Day in terms of Franco-Australian relations has only recently begun to register.
ANZAC Day, held every year on 25 April, is a commemoration of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’ (ANZAC) ill-fated 1915 landing at Gallipoli in modern-day Turkey.
The military campaign in the early stages of World War I is remembered most for the tragic loss of life, and for what was ultimately a futile mission to gain control of the Turkish seaways.
More than 8,700 Australians died, along with 2,700 New Zealanders, 21,000 British, and 1,358 Indians.
Less well known, even in France, is that 9,800 French soldiers were also among the dead.
But now there are signs that France is taking greater interest in remembering its personal sacrifice in the ill-fated campaign.
Growing curiosity about France’s wartime role
In addition to annual celebrations held at Gallipoli Cove, as well as around Australia and New Zealand, an increasing number of people in France have adopted the date to make a pilgrimage to the battlefields in the country’s north.
Each year, busloads of French, Australian and other tourists make a pilgrimage to a dawn service at the military cemetery at Villers-Bretonneux, where in April 1918, Australian ‘diggers’ played a prominent role in taking the town. The battle effectively ended the German offensive on the Somme.
Catherine Pascaud, Managing Director of Servitours, one tour company that is making the annual journey, said she has noticed a real increase in enthusiasm for the commemoration compared to a decade ago.
“Usually the French don’t know about ANZAC Day, but now there is more and more information given to the French public. And of course it will be even bigger next year because of celebrations marking the centenary since the start of World War I,” she said.
A bond between friends
As has become the custom, the Australian ambassador to France, currently Ric Wells, made the journey.
"The Australians who fought on the Western Front became part of this country," Mr Wells said.
"They rested, ate, laughed and cried in French towns and villages.They lived, fought and died beside the people of France."
"They forged memories and bore witness to the cost of war on those who fought and on the civilian population caught in the fire," Mr Wells said.
Kader Arif, delegate for the French veterans affairs minister, also honoured the memory of Australians who died during World War I.
"What nation today would be able to send a tenth of its population to the other side of the world to defend the principles of freedom and democracy?" he said.
"It demonstrates the bonds between our two peoples under the most extreme circumstances."
Meanwhile, for those not willing or able to make the early morning trek from Paris or elsewhere in France to the remote site, there will still be plenty of opportunities to pay respects.
In Paris, Australians will turn out en masse to the popular Café Oz bar in Denfert Rochereau for some dancing and drinking – just as the diggers themselves would have liked to have done, nearly 100 years ago.