Anzac Day 2020 wasn’t like any other for Australia. This year, there wasn’t any Dawn Services, celebrations, or tributes to honour the ANZAC soldiers who gave their lives during the First World War.
A locked-down initiative to pay tribute to Australian soldiers
In the territory of Val de Somme, made up of only a few dozen small towns, inhabitants didn’t let themselves be brought down by circumstances. Thanks to a heartfelt initiative named ‘Australia at your windows’, several towns in the Somme department paid tribute to the young Australian soldiers who fought to defend France.
Dozens of Australian flags, koala toys and kangaroo drawings adorned the windows of homes to brighten what has been an otherwise difficult month.
For the inhabitants of the participating villages, the operation was a personal way to pay tribute to Australia while still respecting the COVID-19-induced lockdown.
“Our duty is to teach and to share”
Stephane Chevin is the mayor of Le Hamel, a town of 500 inhabitants where hundreds of Australian soldiers fought over a century ago. He’s also the President of Val de Somme’s tourist office.
“My wife Nicole and I feel deeply attached to Australia, even though we’ve never been! It was obvious for us to organise this operation.”
Since April 1st, Val de Somme’s tourist office has been decorated with Australian flags, toys and objects offered as gifts by Australians visiting the town. For Stephane, it was a duty to pay a tribute to Australia for Anzac Day.
“As a mayor, and as the President of the tourist office of Val de Somme, it was my responsibility to promote our ‘duty of remembrance’, as they say, to those who lost their lives for us almost 17,000 km away from their families.”
The mayor doesn’t like the expression ‘duty of remembrance’. “Our only duty is to teach and to share”, he says.
Countless Australian guests visit this small town full of Australian history. “Many Australians travel to Le Hamel every year. They usually come to pay tribute to a relative of theirs who fought here. This year, we were honoured to welcome Henry Dalziel’s daughter-in-law. He fought in Le Hamel and received the Victoria Cross, the highest award of the British honours system.”
Like every year, Stephane Chevin and his wife spent some time in the kitchen, preparing traditional Anzac biscuits, following the recipe that their Australian friend shared with them years ago. “To celebrate Anzac Day, my wife and I participated in ‘Australia at your windows’, but we also prepared our famous Anzac biscuits, thanks to our friend’s recipe. Our biscuits are well known by many Australians now!”
Teaching and sharing are what Le Hamel does all year long. “Every year, we invite pupils of our school and their teachers to become Val de Somme’s ambassadors. They visit the memorial in Villers Bretonneux, a monument built in honour of Australian soldiers. They also go to the Sir John Monash Centre, a recently-opened interactive museum which explains Australia’s involvement in the war. These young children keep the Australian soldiers’ memory alive, as they share it with their friends and family.”
Despite the current circumstances, Stephane Chevin stays optimistic. “After the crisis, we hope we’ll finally be able to travel to Australia, and visit the many Australian friends we’ve made over the last 20 years in Le Hamel. »
“Villers-Bretonneux is the most Australian town in France”
Aude has lived in Villers-Bretonneux for 12 years. This year she also participated in ‘Australia at your windows’.
“I arrived in Villers-Bretonneux in 2008. At the time, it was the first Dawn Service at the Australian National Memorial. In the 12 years since then, I haven’t missed a single Dawn Service! »
Aude works in tourism. Over the years, she discovered Australian history, and felt deeply attached to the country. “My work is linked to tourism and history. It made me feel very close towards the lovely Australian people, and I developed a great interest in our common history.”
It is with resignation that Aude stayed at home for Anzac day for the first time in 12 years. “This year, I wasn’t able to stand in front of the memorial, and to feel the emotions of the ceremony. However, it was a duty for my family to participate in ‘Australia at your windows’.
Aude and her children greatly decorated their windows and balconies. “Poppies, Australian flags and little koalas and kangaroos that were given to us by visiting Australians over the years brightened our windows.”
According to Aude, it’s a very personal way to pay tribute to Australian soldiers. “For us living in Villers-Bretonneux, it feels like we’re responsible to keep the memory of all the Australian soldiers who fought here alive. It’s also a way to give hope to all the Australians who were planning to visit us this year.”
After 12 years living in Villers-Bretonneux, Aude met hundreds of Australians, who were impressed by how present Australia was in the town.
“Villers-Bretonneux is the most Australian town in France. If you visit, you will walk through Victoria Street and notice children coming out of Victoria school. You may want to grab a long black in Café Melbourne, or eat a cronut in Snack Sydney, not to mention the Koala club and Flying Kiwis association. It would be hard not to think of Australia here!”
While Anzac Day wasn’t like any other, one thing is certain – Australia will always be remembered in France.