Year

2008

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

School of History and Politics - Faculty of Arts

Abstract

When Allan Griffin, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, stood in front of the Australian National Memorial at Villers Bretonneux on Anzac Day 2008, he told the assembled crowd that the Villers Bretonneux story “is not as well-known in Australia as it should be”. He continued that “our strong connection with the Anzacs at Gallipoli has, over the years, overshadowed our commemoration” of Villers Bretonneux. Villers Bretonneux is harder to find in Australia’s memory of war than Gallipoli. But just as Gallipoli holds a sacred place in Australia’s war memories, Villers Bretonneux has also been imbued with meanings for Australians over the last ninety years. These meanings have changed over time and have both complemented, and jarred with, each other. In 1918, when soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force lived, fought and died around the town of Villers Bretonneux, they formed close relationships with the place and the people there. These relationships stretched out to the Australian home front, so that by war’s end, Villers Bretonneux had meanings to Australians as a place of military victory, fictive kin, and loss. In the years immediately following the war Villers Bretonneux was figuratively adopted by the city of Melbourne, allowing those Victorians who had already formed an attachment to the area in 1918 to deepen that connection. But as memorials to Australians were constructed at Villers Bretonneux during the interwar years, the town again became a place where different battles were fought. The wartime sacrifices made by school children, and by women, jostled with an official memory which could only see the soldiers’ sacrifice. The personal relationships Australians had formed with Villers Bretonneux were overpowered by the bonds and binds of empire; the ascendancy of a soldier-centric memory evident in the Australian National Memorial, unveiled in 1938, saw Villers Bretonneux lose the resonance it had held for Australians during the 1920s. The Twinning of Villers Bretonneux with Robinvale in Victoria during the 1980s showed how complete that lack of resonance had become. Alan Griffin’s speech, however, shows that Villers Bretonneux has begun to recover a place in Australia’s war memories, one based on personal and private meanings. It aptly reflects the notion of a journey in search of Villers Bretonneux, which is the guiding metaphor for this thesis.

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