Villers-Bretonneux (France) (AFP) – The prime ministers of Australia and France will on Tuesday inaugurate a high-tech museum casting light on the role of Australian troops in World War I, as they mark a century since a key battle in the conflict.
The Sir John Monash Centre, in the Somme region of northern France which became synonymous with slaughter during the 1914-18 war, uses lifesize videos of soldiers and a 360-degree cinema to bring the role of Australian troops to life.
“It’s designed for visitors to leave with a better understanding of the role of Australians on the Western Front, right here where they fought,” said its director Caroline Bartlett.
Australian premier Malcolm Turnbull and France’s Edouard Philippe will officially open the museum at the Australian National Memorial, 100 years to the day since the Battle of nearby Villers-Bretonneux.
On Wednesday — Anzac Day, Australia’s national day of remembrance — Britain’s Prince Charles will join the two leaders and nearly 8,000 other people at a solemn dawn ceremony to remember the dead.
German troops seized the town of Villers-Bretonneux on April 24, 1918 on a major westwards push towards the end of the war.
But Australian and British troops, backed by French forces, pulled off a dangerous counter-offensive, stopping a German advance towards the highly strategic neighbouring city of Amiens.
Australia sent more than 295,000 soldiers to France and Belgium to help allied forces between 1916 and 1918.
Some 46,000 of them died and more than 130,000 were injured — huge losses for a nation that had a population of only five million at the time.
More than 2,000 of the young Australians who lost their lives in the war — the average soldier sent to the Western Front was 23 years old — are buried at the National Memorial in what is now peaceful countryside.
The site’s new museum, which cost 63 million euros ($76 million) to develop and opened to the public earlier this month, is named after Australian general John Monash.
Along with hundreds of screens projecting archive footage, it will display soldiers’ diaries, photographs and letters, while visitors will be able to enter a recreation of the trenches.
Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson advised on the filming of new scenes for the museum’s video displays shot in Australia, France and New Zealand to bring the experience of trench warfare to life.
He also lent the museum two World War I planes from his personal collection for the films, which took more than a year to produce.