How Hunters Hill saved France

By Hunters Hill historian

ON AUSTRALIA Day in 2o16, The Weekly Times received Hunters Hill’s Community Event Of The Year award for our role in the restoration and dedication of the World War One German Howitzer that proudly rests outside the Town Hall.

The Howitzer was captured by Australian soldiers on the Western Front one hundred years ago and was presented to Hunters Hill by the citizens of France in recognition of the municipality’s contribution in The Great War.

This contribution saw Hunters Hill contribute fighting men, nurses, medical supplies and food.

Writing about the TWT award, I researched French sources for first hand reports and recognition of the famous gallantry and ingenuity of the Australian fighting men.

What I found was a chillingly different story.

These sources spoke of a nation and a people on the verge of a catastrohic annihilation whose thoughts and prayers were for a quick and decisive allied victory against the invading Germans.

Some stories were from the refugees of once picturesque French villages reduced to rubble or from those under the brutal German occuation and on the verge of death from disease and starvation.

Paris itself suffered a terrifying bombardment from long range German artillery in World War One and there are no shortage of stories of civillians being dug from the rubble of shattered buildings.

Le Vesinet – the Parsisian township which has a Friendship Pact with Hunters Hill – was not spared the horror and fear of the bombardment nor the loss of husbands, sons and brothers at the front.

The most poignant reminder of France’s total war can be found in photograhs and posters produced in Paris, particularly from 1916 to 1918.

The posters are stark and overtly emotive.

Absent are the images of patriotism, flag waving and gallant soldiers that characterise the God, King and Country posters of Australia and the British Empire.

Quite a few of these French posters depict orphans among the ruins desperately pleading in French and English for salvation.

They represent the first widespread use of children as propaganda and the one pictured has the French and English caption ‘Have You A Place In Your Heart For Us.’

For France, Hunters Hill found a place in its heart.

Of course, there are also memorials across France and Belgium to the Australian and Allied soldiers who gave their lives so that France might live.

Some historians write about the futility of The Great War and of soldiers who were used as cannon fodder by British generals, particularly those soldiers forced to go ‘Over The Top’ in trench warfare battles that resulted in a stalement or the pointless capture of a few hundred yards of muddy ground.

The French see things differently.

Their historians stress that battles like Passchendaele in 1916 pushed German resources to the limit, led to widespread food shortages in Germany and ended the war by turning German public opinion against it.

They stress that the Allied Offensive also diverted German forces from the Battle of Verdun, where tens of thousands of French soldiers were fighting a last gasp battle to save their country from obliteration.

For those who believe that Australians gave their lives in vain, it is worth reading the first hand accounts from France – a nation whose gratitude to Australia is eternal.

Have You A Place In Your Heart For Us – this World War One French poster depicts orphans pleading for our help on The Western Front.