Villers-Bretonneux speech

(Originally posted Saturday 05 May, 2007)


Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls.

Thank you to the Rencontres Australiennes Committee for allowing us to speak tonight.

There are two parts to our presentation that link some current events to our shared Franco-Australian history of World War One.

The first presentation is about the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia – appropriate given we are in the Victoria Hall surrounded by magnificent photographs from the Great Ocean Road. [Our family lives on a farm near one end of the road.]

The second presentation outlines the reasons why it is us here tonight giving these presentations in Villers – Bretennoux, and what links we have to the village!


Today is the 75th anniversary of a date Australians know little about – 27 April 1932. It was the day when the Great Ocean Road Trust, the supervising body of the construction of the Great Ocean Road, officially announced the roadworks as completed.

It is Australia’s, and considered the world’s, biggest war memorial…245km of roadway…but today does not rank in our important historical dates!

And yet all Australians know of the Great Ocean Road. We revere it for its beauty. Many of us have travelled it – it is known internationally as one of the Top Five travel destinations in Australia along with the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland , Uluru [Ayers Rock] in the Northern Territory, Sydney in New South Wales, and Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory.

Given the iconic status of the Great Ocean Road, why do not commemorate today then?

The answer…because few of us know of its relationship with our World War One military history!

The road was built between 1919 and 1932 by more than 3000 returned soldiers, in honour of their mates who fell in the First World War. They called it ‘Our Boys’ Memorial.

However, plans for an ocean road in this rugged part of Victoria had emerged as far back as the 1880’s. The region’s coastal settlements like Apollo Bay and Lorne had sprung up to handle the tall timber dragged from the extensive, inland Otway Forests. From these little ports, the timber was shipped out to help build the new state of Victoria. But it was a hazardous sea journey and shipwrecks littered the coast; despite many prominent lighthouses, ships were still going aground in the 1930’s.

Conveniently, when World War One ended, there was a ready-made workforce to build the road. The Government War Office was faced with having to employ tens of thousands of returned servicemen. Many had no job to go or could not work effectively. Labour schemes were introduced, often in agricultural industries. Farmland was made available to those who aspired to be farmers. Sometimes the schemes failed miserably, especially as the economic ‘’Great Depression’ hit hard in the late 1920’s.

And although the Great Ocean Road ultimately succeeded, it was not an easy project. The Diggers, many from the Victorian 8th Battalion, who worked on the construction of the Great Ocean Road, lived in isolated camps set up in the rugged forest. Sometimes there were hundreds of men working; at other times they numbered in just the tens. It was difficult work with long hours [five-and-half days per week] and it resulted in a high turnover of workers.

It was a tough life and some Diggers joked that things had been better on the battle front in France! Occasionally they were criticized for working too slowly, but they felt they owed their country nothing, having already spent up to 4 years of their lives in war service for their nation and allies.

When the road first opened in 1932 it was a tollway, but the tolls were abolished in 1936 when the Great Ocean Road Trust handed the road over to the State Government of Victoria. Today the 245km Great Ocean Road Memorial winds and bends between Torquay and Warrnambool, and links with a further 200km coastal route westwards to the border with the state of South Australia. For tourism marketing purposes, the road from the provincial city of Geelong to the border is called the Great Ocean Road Region.

It is indeed one of the most scenic road journeys in the world.

Today, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the completion of the road a sculptural work has been unveiled to remind people though, that the road was first and foremost a war memorial.

Fittingly, funding for the latest addition to the memorial will come from the same source as the inspiration behind the original Road – the former Mayor of Geelong, Howard Hitchcock, known as the ‘Father of the Road’. When Hitchcock died in August 1932, he left money in his will for a charitable trust, some of which has been used to fund the new work by prominent Melbourne sculptor Julie Squires.

Squires’ research for the art project began with a visit to the Lorne Historical Society to view original photographs of the building of the road. It was essential for her to get all the information right: clothing fashion, hairstyles, the average age and physicality of the individuals and general mood of the men. She was affected by one image that showed a group of men in front of their accommodation barracks. On the door was the word “Courage” written in bold print. It reminded her that these men needed courage not just to fight in trenches, but to adjust to being back home and to work so physically hard each day on the road.

Other observations focused on the individuals, such as the way they swung the tools, the expression on their faces, the looks of depth behind their eyes…eyes that had seen too much. There was a dominant feeling of mateship in the photographs, and perhaps one of the greatest benefits to the men working on the road was that they were able to stay together after the war. This was a time when men were expected to repress their feelings and yet find a way to process the horrors of war. These men had work to occupy their time and they were surrounded by those who could understand their past. They were able to continue living like a battalion, a bond that no doubt helped them through the arduous physical task of cutting out the road by hand.

The sculpture captures the spirit of the men who built the road, with one of the two life-sized figures handing his co-worker a drink bottle – sharing what he has in a time of need – the essence of being a ‘mate’.

According to the chairman of Great Ocean Road Tourism Roger Grant [who provided the video for tonight’s presentation], “it is very important that all generations of Australians, as well as tourists, are aware that the Road was borne out of great sacrifice. The new memorial will achieve that in the most stunning and poignant way – a graphic representation of the mateship that built not only this road, but our nation.”


Billy and I, and our support crew of family, are part-way through a 2000km cycling journey from Rotterdam to Rome raising awareness about Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders. For five days during March in Australia we cycled 500km from Mount Gambier, South Australia to Melbourne, Victoria for the same purpose.

In part I chose MSF to support because of my interest, and family’s involvement, in World War One.

In so many places in the world today MSF deals with the fallout of war – the injured, the displaced, and the disillusioned. As one individual I don’t think I can stop those wars, but through MSF at least I can help patch up the wounded from them. [They are often referred to by military and political leaders as the ‘collateral damage’!]

My great uncle, Captain David Peter Greenham, patched up the wounded from World War One. He was a doctor in Egypt, and here on the Western Front, and developed great surgical skills because of the volume of cases he dealt with; he also learned to improvise because of the basic conditions in which he operated.

When he returned to Australia he could have gone to a large city and had a comfortable suburban practice. He could have continued his sporting pursuits; he was an outstanding athlete, and had represented Victoria in athletics, rowing and Australian Rules Football. But he was a country boy at heart from a simple farming family [we still farm that land]; he had achieved his credentials as a doctor through gaining academic scholarships and he felt like he owed his community.

So he chose to go to the remote Snowy Mountains area of Victoria, around the village of Corryong in the north-east of the state. Then, as it still is now really, the population consisted of scattered families involved in the timber and cattle-grazing industries. It was wild country, home of the famous ‘Man from Snowy River’, the mountain horseman who Australia’s well-known poet Banjo Patterson wrote about.

Doctor Greenham served that community until he died in 1945. There is a street in Corryong named after him, as is the operating ward in the local hospital. He continued to serve the old Diggers of the region. He set up a local branch, and was president for 19 years, of the Returned Services League that provided friendship and assistance to all who had served in the Great War.

In 1938 his care and work was recognised when he was invited to be part of the official guard at the opening of the Australian Memorial at Villers-Bretennoux. I hope it gives extra meaning to your next visit to this significant national monument.

Doctor David Greenham and MSF…both humble, honorable and humanitarian. N’ést-ce pas?

Our home town of Dartmoor has other links with Villers-Bretennoux. Eight men have their names on the memorial because they have no known grave in France, including another uncle of our’s Jack McDonald.

Joseph William [Joe] Sullivan has his name on the monument. When Joe left Dartmoor to embark for France, the citizens of the village held a farewell party in the local hall in his honour [as they did for all departing enlistees]. There was music and dancing and a big supper, and a presentation was made to him of a fine, leather money wallet. Joe Sullivan did not return to Australia, but his wallet did, with a jagged hole in it from shrapnel that had pierced the wallet while in his breast pocket when fighting at Villers-Bretennoux in April 1918.

His story is remembered in our town’s memorial Avenue of Honour. Seventy trees were planted in 1918 to honour our servicemen and nurses; nine of them that had become dangerous in recent years have been carved into figures depicting stories like Joe’s. The sculptures have become a tourist sight, and travellers along the Great Ocean Road come inland 40km just to view the carvings.

Because of the links Villers-Bretennoux has with Robinvale, it would be remiss of me not to talk about another veteran from our local town of Dartmoor – Edwin John [Jack] Dowling. After the war, he worked as an agricultural laborer in the Sunraysia area. Unlike almost all World War One veterans, he spoke long and vehemently about the ‘Not so Great’ Great War. He became an avowed pacifist, and was a keen advocate of trade unions so that workers had a collective voice against unfair bosses and conditions. His passions were based on his realisation that much of the wasted life of the First World War was due to grandiose, wilful plans of generals safely removed from the agonies of the frontline. He opposed being exploited in civilian life and wanted common men and women to have the right to have a say in their own fate….egalite, liberte, fraternite!

So in finishing this evening what can we say for those who cannot speak – the 3000 veterans of the Great Ocean Road construction crews, and Diggers Greenham, Sullivan and Dowling who have close links with Villers-Bretennoux?

Their deeds have spoken for them. Remember our past, learn its lessons, honour each other, and enjoy the beauty around us. Maybe one day we will stop fighting our fellow man, and we can support Medecins Sans Frontieres in dealing with natural, not man-made disasters.


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Filed under 2007, Rotterdam to Rome

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