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Sir John Monash Centre - "Tony Abbott's finest vision for Australia" - to be opened next week. Lest We Forget

Paul Kelly was a member of the panel advising Prime Minister Abbott on how best to commemorate the centenary of Australia's engagements on The Western Front during WW1.

He's written a great piece on the opening of The Sir John Monash Centre next week - "one of Tony Abbott's finest visions for Australia".


Honouring Western Front Heroes

Next week, on the eve of Anzac Day, one of Tony Abbott’s finest visions for Australia will be realised. The Sir John Monash Centre — Abbott’s plan to create an enduring visitor and information centre and museum on the Western Front — will be opened by Malcolm Turnbull.

The centre exists only because of Abbott’s drive as prime minister, his defiance of conventional wisdom about war commemoration and his conviction the World War I centenary should revive the historical memory of the Western Front as the greatest focus of human sacrifice and military achievement in our history.

It is Abbott who chose to name the centre after Australia’s most successful soldier, Monash. He decided on the location on high ground sharing the site with the Australian National Memorial outside the French village of Villers-Bretonneux. The town straddles the city of Amiens, a critical transport hub during the war and famous for its cathedral, the largest gothic structure in France.

Turnbull has invited Abbott to attend next week, an appropriate gesture. The centre will be opened on the evening of April 24 by Turnbull, with French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe in attendance, given the absence of President Emmanuel Macron who is in Washington ahead of his visit to Australia starting on May 1. The dawn service the next morning will honour the battle of Villers-Bretonneux that occurred, by an extraordinary coincidence, during the third Anzac Day in 1918.

Interviewed by The Australian, Abbott said Turnbull’s invitation to him was “gracious” — and Turnbull, in turn, recognises the historical import of the event.

“Often, government these days is a response to daily events and not much tends to make a lasting difference,” Abbott said. “But this project is something that will endure as long as our country lasts. I am pleased and proud this is now happening. It is a lasting legacy from my time in government.”

The special bond between Villers-Bretonneux and Australia originates in the formidable German offensive of March 1918 designed to win the war before US forces arrived in numbers. The Germans broke through, threatened Amiens, and took Villers-Bretonneux on April 24, only to succumb to an Australian-dominated counter-attack the next day, an operation hailed as one of the Australian Imperial Force’s finest efforts of the war.

It was a rare fusion of fast planning and brilliant execution. One of the Australian commanders, Brigadier-General Harold “Pompey” Elliott, said: “The fight became a soldiers’ fight purely and simply. The success was due to the energy and determination of the junior commanders and the courage of the troops.”

Military historian Peter Pedersen said: “Saving Villers-Bretonneux meant saving Amiens, which thrust the town on to centre stage and forever associated the Australians with it.” Monash said: “There is no spot on the tortured soil of France which is more associated with Australian history and the triumph of Australian soldiers than Villers-Bretonneux.”

While there are other battle sites such as Pozieres — where the nation lost 23,000 men in seven weeks — with a far greater sacrifice, Villers-Bretonneux, where the death toll numbered 1464, has kept its hold on the collective mind. This is because of the valour of the troops, their recognition by other Allied leaders and because Villers-Bretonneux opened the path to the greatest series of victories in our military history.

Upwards of 8000 people are expected to attend the dawn service this year. Abbott as prime minister visited the site in June 2014 before construction began and imposed a completion timetable of Anzac Day 2018, a deadline that remarkably has been met.

It was Abbott and his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, who forced through budget approval, cut through bureaucracy and imposed their vision on the decision-making system. Otherwise, the project had zero prospects. “All credit to the French,” Abbott said. “Getting this from conception to completion in just 3½ years is amazing.”

There's plenty more at The Australian.

Thank you Paul.

Lest We Forget