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Newcastle’s Anzac Day French connection

REMEMBRANCE: Professor Hubert Hondermarck and Professor Jim Denham at the war memorial in Federal Park, Wallsend. Picture: Jonathan CarrollFOR Hubert Hondermarck, his formal education about began the moment he walked into the school grounds in his hometown in France.
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On a shelter overlooking the playground was a sign that read, “Do Not Forget ”.

“The very first time I heard the word ‘’, I was probably four years old at school,” recalls53-year-old Professor Hondermarck, as we sit beside the long shadowof a war memorial in Wallsend.

“I didn’t know a single word of English at the time, but the school teacher translated it to me.N’oublions jamais L’Australie.”

Yet young Hubert had been living amid memories of from the moment he was born. His hometown is Villers-Bretonneux, a beautiful and bucolic community today, but a key World War One battleground in 1918. On this day a century ago, ns took back Villers-Bretonneux from German forces, after weeks of intense fighting.

“The story of the battles for Villers-Bretonneux are taught at school,” explains Professor Hondermarck.“So from very early on, they learn why they should not forget .

“When the Germans advanced west towards Amiens, the objective was not only to try reach Paris but to get to the coast and cut France from England. And it was actually the ns who stopped them.

“What people in France keep is that the ns blocked the German advance in Villers-Bretonneux, and that was the beginning of the end for Germany. It was a turning point.

“The people see ns as liberators. That’s the way it was in 1918. The town was literally liberated by ns.

“The ns apparently stayed around, they didn’t leave straight away. They participated in rebuilding the place.”

Among the buildings reconstructed with n help, including money given by schoolchildren on the other side of the globe in Victoria, is the school Hubert Hondermarck attended. And above the Victoria School is a small museum, filled with artefacts from the war and reminders of the enduringlink between the French town and .

Professor Hodermarck recalls wandering through that museum and seeing the displays of n uniforms, including the“cowboy-style” slouch hats. He was intrigued by those hats, because theylookedas though they were from “a movie,a western”.

Beyond the school, there were other reminders of . On the town hall’s facade were images of kangaroos, and residents could wander along Melbourne Street, one of the main roadsin Villers-Bretonneux.

Each Anzac Day, Hubert Hondermarck and his classmates would participate in the commemorative services at the militarycemetery and n National Memorial, rising from the fields and overlooking the Somme Valley, just beyondthe edge of town. Professor Hondermarckrecalled learning the n national anthemand “Waltzing Matilda”.

He can still whistle that tune, and “sometimes I do this without even realising!”.

On windy days, young Hubert and his mates would head to the memorial, not to remember the impact of war but to fly their kites.

At age 15, Hubert Hondermarck movedto Peronne, another town battered during World War I, and fought for by n forces.

While he leftVillers-Bretonneux, the lessons of the town never left Hubert Hondermarck. He never forgot .

In 2011, having become an acclaimed professor of biochemistry, HubertHondermarck accepted an invitation to work at the University of Newcastle. He leadsa cancer neurobiology research group, studyingnew ways to diagnose and treat the disease.

“It’s like I’ve followed the track to ,” he says.

YetwhatHubert Hondermarck found when he arrived here was that Villers-Bretonneux, and the battles to save it, had been all but forgotten by .

“I was a bit surprised Villers-Bretonneux was not known more than this,” Professor Hondermarck says.

Yet one who knew about the ns’ role in the French town was Professor Hondermark’s university colleague, Jim Denham. As well as being a leading researcher in the field of clinical oncology, Professor Denham is a history buff.

Having grown up across the English Channel in Britain, Jim Denham knew little about what the ns did on the Western Front. But after touringthe northern Frenchbattlefields with his wife, Liz, in 2006, Professor Denham was hungry to learn more about ’s role. And he believesnsshould know a lot more about Villers-Bretonneux.

Professor Hubert Hondermarck, University of Newcastle researcher and former Villers-Bretonneux resident

“What I did was I asked a whole lot of dinky-di ns did they know anything about Villers-Bretonneux, were they told anything about this in school, and the answer was ‘no’,” Professor Denham says. “And I thought to myself, ‘This is ridiculous. The ns have actually played a big part in finishing that terrible war, and we over here in don’t celebrate it, and nobody knows about it’. I found that offensive!”

Hubert Hondermarck and Jim Denham often talk with each other about thedecisive World War One battles around Villers-Bretonneux, and they encourage others to join in the conversation.

“I’d really love to see this becoming something, where there’s an appreciation of this battle,” says Professor Denham. “Because this is where the true Anzac spirit resides.”

“I should put it this way,”, adds Professor Hondermarck, “Do not forget Villers-Bretonneux.”

On Anzac Day, Hubert Hondermarck will watch the broadcast of the service held at Villers-Bretonneux. He will watch out for his sister, who is the principal of the local high school, and whose students will be playing a role in the commemorative service. And he will think about how this little Frenchcommunityshaped him, and how shaped his hometown, and his life.

And just as he always has, Hubert Hondermarckwill feel pride in being French, and in being in .

“There’s something magical about Viller-Bretonneux’srelationship with ,” he says, smiling.

“You know what we say in Villers-Bretonneux is that Villers-Bretonneux is actually in France, a part of in France.

“So maybe I’ve always been from this country.”

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