Honouring the ANZACs

Villers Bretonneux Cross Replica and Tribute to Bob Thomas (Retired St Mark's Teacher)

by David Hummerston - Year 5 St Mark's Teacher

About ten years ago, in my capacity as CAVE Coordinator in the Primary School, I taught a unit of work to upper-school students about ‘Sacrifice’. My colleague, Mr Bob Thomas, had inspired me when he mentioned the Australian Military’s contribution on the Western Front towards saving Villers Bretonneux, a French town, from the clutches of the Germans during World War 1. I did a little research and discovered that on the evening of 24-25 April 1918, two brigades of the first Australian Imperial Force led an attack so decisive that later it was described by an official Historian as “the most impressive operation on the Western Front”.

Unfortunately, 365 Australian men died in the battle. Those who survived were inspired to erect a cross at the spot where many Western Australians from the 51st Battalion (including the 13th Brigade from Western Australia) paid the supreme sacrifice. A large cross was made by Horatio and Ted Julian, English cabinet makers, using timber from a nearby destroyed church. It was painted by Walter Rich and transported and erected by a working party under the command of Reginald Wood.

Eventually, the cross was returned to New South Wales in 1933, and as a mark of respect to Western Australia, the cross was then gifted to St Georges Cathedral, Perth, in 1956, where it is mounted and on permanent display. I organised visits to the Cathedral and retold this home ground story of courage, respect and sacrifice to our students. (In 2008, the cross, accompanied by the St George’s choir, returned to Villers Bretonneux to be reblessed and then journeyed back to Perth).

And then I had a great idea - let’s make a replica of the Villers Bretonneux cross for the St Mark’s students, and then (like many ideas men) I left the school.

But Mr Bob Thomas is many things, including a history buff and a builder. In his own time, he visited St George's Cathedral, measured and took photographs of the original cross, completed some more research and then, over the ensuing months, laboured in his backyard shed to carefully build a replica. He also laboriously copied, letter by letter, the words of gratitude painted on the original cross over 100 years ago.

The St Mark's version of the Villers Bretonneux Cross has provided an opportunity to point students to a slice of Australia’s history and character. To commemorate Anzac Day 2022, Junior School students were treated to a lesson with retired teacher Bob Thomas who relayed the story during CAVE time. Students reflected and thanked God for another wonderful Australian soldier, leader, mentor, servant and friend, Mr Bob Thomas.

Lest we forget.