Numbers drop for French Anzac service

In the chilly early hours at Villers-Bretonneux in France, thousands gathered at the Australian National Memorial for the Anzac Day dawn service, but numbers were well below those that turned out for last year’s commemorations.

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It was here on April 24, 1918, that two brigades of the First Australian Imperial Force recaptured the town, 1200 Australian lives lost in the process.

Organisers confirmed that 3100 people attended Monday’s service, reflecting a predicted drop in visitors across European Anzac commemorations.

Australian Governor-General Peter Cosgrove, on a state visit to France, delivered a commemorative address focusing on the countries’ shared history, and the significance it had on the relationship today.

Speaking of the losses suffered during the battles on the Western Front, Sir Peter said the lives of soldiers and their hosts quickly became intertwined.

“I know the friendship shown to those soldiers was a precious gift in a time of lives forsaken.

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

He spoke of a “triumph between people from opposite sides of the world” and finding the “joie de vivre and the beauty of life together”.

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

With roads anywhere within the vicinity of the memorial closed and patrolled by French gendarmes, the increased level of security was apparent.

Each person heading up to the site went through what organisers described as “airport-style” security, with walk-through metal detectors and bag X-rays the main features of an entry-way tent.

The security enhancements follow a recent string of terror attacks across Europe, which have been partly blamed for a fall in crowds.

But while numbers on Monday were down from 2015’s peak of 6500, for those attending crowd size did not appear to be an issue.

Merome Daly, from Perth, was with a family group of 30 honouring her great-uncle, James Ross Duperouzel, who died in Somme in 1916.

Ms Daly said commemorating the centenary of his death was what was significant to the family, and it made no difference if “10,000 or 1000” other visitors attended the service.

Tony Goldman from NSW, travelling with a group of 36, said it was the first service he’d attended in France and he had no previous experience to compare the numbers to, but that he didn’t feel a shortage of people had had an impact on the occasion.

“The dawn service was excellent. It was very moving and there seemed to be a great crowd.”

A Department of Veterans’ Affairs spokesman told AAP the service had been highly successful in his eyes.

Regarding the drop in attendees, he said it wasn’t a great concern.

“People make their own decisions based on the circumstances. We anticipate in years to come, over 2017-18, the numbers will increase again.”