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The Promise

On 14 July 1921, the Victorian Chief Commissioner of Police, Sir John Gellibrand, presided over the launch of a public appeal to “adopt” the northern French town of Villers-Bretonneux. £20, 000 were to be sought to assist postwar reconstruction “in memory of the association of French and Australian arms at that critical centre of warfare.” That same evening, the Alliance Française dedicated its Bastille Day ball to the cause. Moneys raised helped, among other things, to rebuild the town school: it was given the name “Victoria School” which it still bears today. In 1984-5 Villers-Bretonneux was officially twinned with the Victorian river town of Robinvale, named in memory of Robin Cuttle, an airman who lost his life over Villers-Bretonneux in 1918. Every year, memorial ceremonies are held on Anzac Day, and more strikingly, the school shelter-shed bears the message: DO NOT FORGET AUSTRALIA, a message repeated in French in each classroom. It is hard to find a stronger or more poignant example of the enduring Australian-French links that were generated in the course of the First World War: the savage battles of Villers-Bretonneux, hugely costly in human lives, were a turning-point in the war; today the town is a key pivot in a carefully sustained intercultural relationship.

Derek Guille learned the story of Villers-Bretonneux almost by accident when he accompanied the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on its 2007 European tour. He was able to join members of the brass section who went to Villers-Bretonneux to honour the grand-father of one of them: Nelson Ferguson, an artist and musician, who had served in the war as a stretcher-bearer, and had been severely wounded by poison-gas in the battle for Villers-Bretonneux in 1918. Guille weaves the threads of his narrative with great clarity and skill. He conveys the brutal horror of what happened in the war and the starkness of the rows of graves in the cemetery, but he does so with a touch made lighter by his account of the present-day visit of the Melbourne musicians, and of the extraordinarily warm welcome afforded them by the officials, families, and children of the French town.

At the heart of the book is the figure of Nelson Ferguson, who gives us insight into the true nature of heroism, not so much through his war service as through the extraordinary courage with which, after the war, when his eyes and lungs were permanently ruined, he rebuilt his artistic life working with stained glass, inspired by what he had seen in some of France’s churches. This focus shows Guille’s belief in the ongoing healing powers of art; it also testifies to the value of investigating, and setting down, the stories of people who have neither sought nor known celebrity, but whose remembered lives can enrich the meaning of our own.

The Promise is an educational work in the very best senses of the term. It will be most suitable for young people from late primary to early secondary school, but adults will enjoy it and benefit from it, too. It is attractively and pertinently illustrated by Kaff-eine, who has combined some playful pictures with others that are more thought-provoking or tinged with the painful sorrows that infuse parts of the narrative. The publishers at One Day Hill are to be congratulated for making the book bilingual. Anne-Sophie Biguet’s translation will ensure that the book is accessible to French readers, and that it will also give Australian French-learners a historically relevant text that can help extend language skills. Above all, the co-existence of the two languages is a reminder that this is a story profoundly shared by two cultures.

Professor Colin Nettelbeck
The University of Melbourne