Bernard Vasquez and Jean Mroz
The Franco-Australian Museum at Villers-Bretonneux is situated above the school. It has grown from the early days described by Madame Ginette. In keeping with the generosity shown by the Australian Government during the centenary years, it recently received a $2-million donation towards an extensive refurbishment.
The English accent of the woman on the front counter suggests I am not going to find a local person working here to chat with. However, local residents Bernard Vasquez and Jean Mroz are happy to walk over to the museum to sit and chat with Lionel and me.
Sitting in the room filled with Australian memorabilia and stories of Australia’s involvement in the war here, I am not completely aware of what this pair of local men are saying to Lionel until he turns to me with his English translation.
Confusion dampens their faces a little when Lionel turns back to them and translates that I want to know where their families lived during World War I. It seems visiting Australians are usually interested in stories of Aussie Diggers in this town.
Bernard, a little reluctantly, admits he was born near Villers-Bretonneux. Both his grandfathers were involved in the war. He explains that in 1915 his grandfather was left for dead, and his parents received a black letter telling them about his death; however, he came home four years later, after having been a prisoner of war.
I ask them if their families ever spoke about the Australian involvement in World War I. Shaking their heads, they explain that talk in the area between locals had been more about the Second World War, until the 1980s. The resurgence of World War I interest started around the 50th anniversary of the commemoration of Verdun, said to be one of the longest and bloodiest campaigns of World War I, which attracted half a million war veterans.
‘When you grow up in places where the battles took place, you hear about them all the time,’ Jean says. ‘You hear so many stories. It almost seems normal.
‘You are going to be disappointed, but we don’t know much about the relationships Australians and the French had [during the war].’
He explains that there were no stories because local people weren’t here. The men had gone to fight, and the remaining locals were evacuated when the battles began.
‘They came back, let’s say during the winter, at the end of 1918. Eighty per cent of the town had been destroyed,’ Bernard says. ‘When they came home, the Australians had already left.’
They proudly show me around the Franco-Australian Museum, which houses an extensive collection of objects that they explain symbolise the longstanding friendship between France and Australia.
It is part of ongoing efforts by the town to remember and honour World War I and the contribution made by Australians at Villers-Bretonneux.