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French museum brings Aussie troops’ WW1 horror to life

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Australian Colonel Scott Clingan (left) escorts French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe (right) and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his wife Lucy, through the military cemetery in Villers-Bretonneux before a visit to the Sir John Monash Centre on the eve of ANZAC Day. AFP

VILLERS-BRETONNEUX, FRANCE (AFP) – The prime ministers of France and Australia urged their countries never to forget the horrors of World War I on Tuesday, as they opened a high-tech museum dedicated to the 295,000 Australians who volunteered on the Western Front.

A hundred years to the day since the key battle of Villers-Bretonneux in which Australian, British and French troops served alongside each other, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull paid tribute to his country’s war dead.

“Both our countries lost the finest of their generation in this dreadful conflict,” Mr Turnbull told French premier Edouard Philippe as they opened the Sir John Monash Centre, a new museum in the Somme region of northern France that became synonymous with the wartime slaughter.

“We must remember all of this – especially our nations’ leaders – reminding us why we always strive to resolve conflict.”

Mr Turnbull spoke after he and his wife Lucy laid flowers at the grave of her great-uncle, an army doctor who died in his brothers’ arms aged 26.

The 63-million-euro ($76-million) museum, at the Australian National Memorial located just outside of Villers-Bretonneux, uses life-size videos of soldiers and a 360-degree cinema to showcase the role of Australian troops.

“Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson advised on the filming of scenes for its video displays, which were shot in Australia, France and New Zealand to bring the experience of trench warfare to life.

Its inauguration came as thousands of Australians flocked to the Somme ahead of a dawn ceremony at the memorial yesterday to mark Anzac Day, Australia’s national day of remembrance.

“You walk through the graveyards and see that they’re 19, they’re 20. It breaks your heart to see it,” said Greg Henderson, a salesman from Brisbane.

He came to honour his great-grandfather Charles Joseph Mackie, who died at nearby Proyart.

Mr Henderson was among the thousands of Australians who marked the special centenary Anzac Day at the memorial, where Turnbull, Philippe and Britain’s Prince Charles were set to give speeches.

German troops seized Villers-Bretonneux on April 24, 1918, in a major westward push towards the end of the war.

But Australian and British troops, backed by French forces, launched a counter-offensive, stopping the German advance towards the strategic city of Amiens.

Over the course of the war, some 46,000 Australian troops died and more than 130,000 were injured – huge losses for a nation whose population was only five million at the time.

Only one soldier’s identified body was ever repatriated to Australia, where the war losses remain deeply ingrained in the national identity.

Mr Philippe told the museum’s opening ceremony that France had a duty to remember those who died on its soil so far from home.

“We have to tell their stories, and again and again show the young faces of these men who lost their youth in the mud of the trenches,” he said.

“We will never forget their sacrifice.”

The museum, which opened to the public earlier this month, is named after Australian general John Monash.

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