‘Lest we forget the battles of France’

A century ago the first Australian soldiers arrived in the fields of France, encountering an idyllic landscape on which would be fought battles unprecedented in history.

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In coming months Australia would mark the first major battles of the Western Front involving Australians, at Fromelles and Pozieres, Governor-General Peter Cosgrove says.

But before that first Anzac Day, the first of almost 300,000 soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force began arriving in France.

Some were veterans of Gallipoli and others were new recruits eager to play their part, perhaps blissfully unaware of what was to come.

Sir Peter said that was a landscape of picturesque villages, bountiful crops and verdant fields, estaminets and the rhythm of country life, which was all to change.

“The battles fought across these lands were of a scale unprecedented in the human experience: mighty artillery barrages tore men apart, and sent some insane; machineguns cut great swathes through the ranks of soldiers running toward their almost inevitable deaths,” he says in his address to the Anzac Day dawn service at Villers-Bretonneux.

Sir Peter said the locals knew all too well the pain and price of that war, the familiar black dresses of grieving widows and the mantelpiece photos of men gazing into living rooms to which they would never return.

“Almost 100 years have now passed and on this lovingly tended land, these fallen friends and allies rest in peace together,” he said.

Sir Peter said people came to such a special place on such a special day to remember them and to share admiration and respect, just as in the coming months many would mark a century since battles at places like Fromelles and Pozieres.

“Let us never forget each other and what truly binds us,” he said.