ACCORDING to his military ID, he was at Villers-Bretonneux in France on Anzac Day, 1918.

But he was not an Anzac. He was from Oldenburg in Germany’s north. August Grotelüschen “spent a lot of time in the trenches of the Somme”, his son told a group of German newspapers. “But he never said anything about it”.

In an interview to mark a hundred years since the start of WWI, Rolf Grotelüschen, then 85, said that he kept the remnants of his father’s war years neatly in the Oldenburg family house: field post cards; dark blue soldier’s pass; photos of August at 18 in a grey military uniform. “In this year of commemoration,” he said, “I wish people would learn from these things.”

We know from observers’ accounts that one of the most striking things about men returning from the battles of the Somme was their silence. The horrors of what they had lived and witnessed, at least initially, were indescribable — “the back of language broke”, to use Robert Hughes’ memorable phrase.

We also know that when civilians talked about the war with religious metaphors — of cavalry, crucifixion and martyrdom — the image that most readily came to men on the Western Front was the abattoir. And this on both sides of the lines.

By definition, the Sir John Monash Centre, to be inaugurated at Villers-Bretonneux tomorrow, argues the imperative of a single institution focusing on the specificity of Australia’s story on the Western Front. And that is fair enough given the depth of Australia’s bearing, loss and wartime presence there. And of the commemorative context: France is home to more than 30,000 war-related sites, memorials and monuments and Belgium hosts many, too.

Beyond the Picardy region and parts of northern France, the French, like the Germans, even Bavarians whose great grandfathers stood across the front lines from us at Fromelles, don’t know much about the Australian experience, sacrifice or contribution to the so-called Great War.

Explain at a Paris or Munich dinner party that there are some 46,300 Australians laid out in the rich black soil of the Western Front, or that we suffered more than 5,500 casualties in our first 27 hours of warfare at Fromelles in 1916, and you will usually be met by a stunned, rather embarrassed silence. That we might also know, though, that 27,000 Frenchmen were killed in 24 hours on 22 August, 1914; 20,000 Brits on day one of the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916). Further east, the story was much the same. When the war was finally over — with more than 9 million dead in 52 months of fighting — 15 per cent of Serbia’s population had been wiped out.

John Monash at his headquarters in the Villers- Bretonneux sector. (Pic: Australian War Memorial)
John Monash at his headquarters in the Villers-Bretonneux sector. (Pic: Australian War Memorial)

General Sir John Monash and the Anzacs of the Western Front are about to get the kind of recognition they deserve — for their vast sacrifice, resolution and courage, for their victories with the allies in 1918. Demystified (if that’s possible), Monash, even for those who make the effort to see him with a degree of objectivity, was surely our greatest military leader. Monash the Jewish Melbourne citizen soldier and engineer, of German family origins, who co-engineered the great allied breakthrough of August 8, 1918, that German commander General Erich Ludendorff would call “the black day of the German army”.

World War One was important in forging Australia’s identity as a young nation and much of it happened in the
muddy trenches of France and Belgium. Events on the Western Front between 1916 and 1918 lie at the bedrock of our national story, especially in Europe, so are central to us putting our case here, in a deep sense, about who we are. (As is the Quai Branly museum, which opened in Paris in 2006, integrating Australian indigenous art into its architecture and hosting one of the largest collections of it anywhere outside Australia). For a long time, France was the country in continental western Europe that mattered most, still matters a lot, and with the advent of president Emmanuel Macron, not to say Brexit, matters more again than it did even a few years ago.

Interactive screens inside the galleries at Sir John Monash Centre on the site of the Australian Memorial outside Villers-Bretonneux. (Pic: Ella Pellegrini)
Interactive screens inside the galleries at Sir John Monash Centre on the site of the Australian Memorial outside Villers-Bretonneux. (Pic: Ella Pellegrini)

To quote Pauline Neville-Jones, formerly political director of the UK Foreign Office, “if you want to be important in France, you need to be grand”. But ‘grand’ doesn’t mean grandstanding, or shouldn’t, and we’ll see whether the Centre manages to be both big-thinking and personal, and the extent to which Australian, local and other visitors take it to heart. But it’s true that a wide-reaching synoptic account of Australia’s role on the Western Front, writ-large, has been needed for a long time.

And yet over many years travelling back and forth from Paris to the Somme and the north of France for commemorative events, it’s the commonality of experience, not infantry tactics or the details of any decisive military offensive, that begins to mark you — the sacrifice and family suffering across countries, borders and cultures.

And the contemporary relevance.

The kind of destruction that was witnessed in Europe between 1914 and 1918 could surely never happen again? Well, it did; 21 years later. Surely other European countries, if not the world beyond, could have stopped tensions between two nations — Austria and Serbia — rising to the point of spinning off into war? They didn’t. We cannot idly presume then that they would if, say, antagonism between Russia/Syria and the US, or North Korea and the US, were to reach boiling point.

went looking for Rolf Grotelüschen for this story and instead found his notice. He bowed out last year, aged 88. So is perhaps again with his father, with members of the German and even Australian imperial forces and all those others now — who knows? Or perhaps that’s just how some civilians, for whom the universal tragedy of WWI remains incomprehensible, still prefer to think of it.