As told by Australian journalist David Marr who was recently at Villers-Bretonneux, France for the opening of the $100m Monash Centre ...
I’m not really keen on David Marr as a journalist, (I actually dislike the guy) but I was captivated by the reported words of the French President. A fantastic speech. A speech that brought tears to the audience.
Here’s what was reported ...
Those damn French never could be trusted. The opening of the Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux was supposed to mark a century of amity between our two peoples yet the French prime minister, Édouard Philippe, delivered a speech that blew Malcolm Turnbull’s to smithereens.
A lot of words have been shed on the western front. This is a place of blood and poetry. A national leader opening a new museum commemorating these battles has to have something to say.
Let’s not be cruel. Turnbull’s effort would have passed muster back home. Nuts and bolts stuff. A useful explanation of General Ludendorff’s tactics in the 1918 March offensive. Family connections. Many deaths. No household untouched. We must never forget etc. Applause.
Then the Frenchman went to the microphone with, it would seem, aggression in his heart and literature in his kitbag, launching himself into the crowd with a line from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front: “He is entirely alone now with his little life of 19 years, and cries because it leaves him.”
Now can Anzac Day return to a day of solemn reflection?
Then he seized the high ground: “Coming here, seeing this centre and tower, looking at the names of the 11,000 Australians who died for France and for freedom, I could not help thinking of the terrible loneliness which these thousands of young Australians must have felt as their young lives were cut short in a foreign country.
“A foreign country. A faraway country. A cold country whose earth had neither the colour nor texture of their native bush. A faraway, foreign country which they defended, inch by inch, in Fromelles in the Nord region, in Bullecourt in Pas-de-Calais and of course here, in Villers-Bretonneux. As if it were their own country.
“And it is their own country. ‘The earth is more important to the soldier than to anybody else,’ continues Erich Maria Remarque, ‘the earth is his only friend, his brother, his mother. He groans out his terror and screams into its silence and safety’. For many young Australians, this earth was their final safe place. For many of them, this earth was the final confidante of a thought or a word intended for a loved one from the other side of the world.”
Somehow he wove in Francois I and the Chevalier Bayard with the hell of the trenches: “The mud, the rats, the lice, the gas, the shellfire, the fallen comrades.”
Men and women near me were crying.