I have always found that the French are incredibly welcoming and warm people. We often read in the popular press that the French don’t like the British, they detest the Americans and don’t like foreigners – it’s utter rubbish! I live here, have lots of French friends and listen into the chat at my local bar, the hub of French life…
I’ve certainly had nothing but positive reactions from the French since I’ve moved to France and neither have my expat neighbours who number South Africans, American, Dutch, Belgian, Greek, German, New Zealanders and Australians amongst others.
The little town of Villers-Bretonneux in Picardy is a perfect illustration of the bond that can exist between the French and foreigners – in this case Australians.
On 24 April 1918, the small town of Villers-Bretonneux was the setting of the world’s first battle between two tank forces. Three British Mark IVs against three German A7Vs. The Germans won that battle and took the town. However, that night and all the next day the Australian Infantry Force fought bravely and fiercely to rescue the little village and it was recaptured by the 4th and 5th Division of the AIF, sadly resulting in the loss of over twelve hundred Australian lives.
A year later, the mayor of Villers-Bretonneux unveiled a memorial in their honour saying: “The first inhabitants of Villers-Bretonneux to re-establish themselves in the ruins of what was once a flourishing little town have, by means of donations, shown a desire to thank the valorous Australian Armies, who with the spontaneous enthusiasm and characteristic dash of their race, in a few hours drove out an enemy ten times their number…They offer a memorial tablet, a gift which is but the least expression of their gratitude, compared with the brilliant feat which was accomplished by the sons of Australia…Soldiers of Australia, whose brothers lie here in French soil, be assured that your memory will always be kept alive, and that the burial places of your dead will always be respected and cared for…”
Almost a century later, the bond that was established that day between the villagers of Villers-Bretonneux and the people of Australia is still going strong. The Australian War Memorial in France is situated on the outskirts of Villers-Bretonneux and in front of it lay the graves of over 770 Australian soldiers, as well as those of other British Empire soldiers involved in the campaign. The village is twinned with the town of Robinvale in Victoria (some 500km North-west of Melbourne) who’s founder was one Herbert Cuttle who named it after his son Robin who had been killed in a dog-fight over the Somme near Villers-Bretonneux in 1918.
After the tragic events of the Great War, the school in Villers-Bretonneux was rebuilt using money bequeathed by the State of Victoria and by donations from the school children of Victoria (many of whom had relatives perish in the town’s liberation). The first stone was laid in 1921 and above every blackboard in the school is the inscription “N’oublions jamais l’Australie” (Never forget Australia).
There’s a small museum in the attic of the school and if you want to visit, it’s open on a Saturday afternoon or just pop into the Town Hall and they’ll arrange it – if you’re Australian you’ll get a very warm welcome indeed!
Do the French hate all foreigners? They do not.
Attending the Anzac Day Memorial meeting at Villers-Bretonneux