Presentation of a French-style street plaque to the Mayor of Randwick, Cr Scott Nash
On Wednesday 20 August, in the reception room of the French Consulate-General, a ceremony was held in which a French-style street plaque was handed to Cr Scott Nash, Mayor of Randwick City Council. It is very interesting to reflect on the earlier history of this object, seemingly quite foreign to Sydney.
Four years ago, Mr Théo Arfaras, President of the French North African Veterans Association, arranged the delivery of half-a-dozen French-style street plaques, commemorating various of the World War I Western Front battlefields where Australian ‘diggers’ had distinguished themselves, along with French poilus, during that bloodiest of conflicts. These street signs, produced upon the French pattern, were erected at Matraville, the site of a soldier settlement after the Great War. In the spirit of Australian larrikinism, someone – possibly a descendant of one of those Australian veterans! – ‘souvenired’ one of the street plaques. Mr Arfaras, through contacts he has in France, prevailed upon the Conseil Général Nord-Pas de Calais (the equivalent of an Australian state government) to provide a replacement. It was this replacement that was presented to Cr Nash.
Mr Arfaras dedicated the plaque to one of the 160 Diggers who declared themselves born in France, Private Léon Jean BRIAND, a veteran of the French Navy, enlisted in the AIF in 1914 and served with the 16th Battalion, AIF (a Western Australian unit) on Gallipoli where he was awarded the Military Medal for bravery in the defence of Quinn’s Post. Private BRIAND – he was promoted to corporal and demoted several times – was wounded in the head on Gallipoli and repatriated to Australia. He spent a year recovering before rejoining his unit in France. At the First Battle of Bullecourt (11 April 1917), he was again wounded and taken prisoner. The 4th and 12th Brigades of the 4th Australian Division, which carried out the attack as part of the British offensive against the Hindenburg Line, suffered over 3,300 casualties. Léon Briand was repatriated by the Germans in 1918. It is interesting to speculate what effect his head wound had on his subsequent disciplinary problems.
The ceremony was very kindly hosted by Monsieur Eric Berti, Consul Général de France, who provided excellent food and drink. Also present were Madame Sylvia Galvao, Deputy Consul, and Madame Merlyn Gorana of the Consulate staff, Madame Flore Gregorini, of ‘Le Petit Journal’, a French news service, Mr Brad Manera, Executive Manager of the Anzac Memorial, and Mr Jim Munro, Vice-President of the ‘Families and Friends of the First AIF Inc.’ Dr William Land AM represented the Association Nationale des Membres de l’Ordre National du Mérite and Professor Ross Steele, President of the Société des Membres de la Légion d’Honneur, who had a prior engagement, sent his apologies.
This function was an excellent example of the devoir sacré de mémoire partagée (the sacred duty towards shared memories) of the diggers and poilus, fighting side by side in the charnel house of the Western Front. To be able to honour a Frenchman, serving in the Australian Army, a man decorated for gallantry under fire, is doubly fortunate.
Dr William Land AM
(Photo: L-R: Théo Arfaras – President of the French North African Veterans Association, Brad Manera – Executive Manager of the Anzac Memorial, Scott Nash – Mayor of Randwick City Council, Monsieur Eric Berti, Consul Général de France, Jim Munro – Vice-President of the ‘Families and Friends of the First AIF Inc.’)
Private Briand is an inspired choice!
One point of clarification though, this French born Western Australian soldier enlisted in 1914 and was an original member of the 16th Battalion (a very fine Western Australian battalion with only a few South Australians to hold it back) the stamp ’20th Reinforcements’ on his attestation paper relates only to the reinforcement batch he returned to the war with in 1917.
He was awarded the Military Medal for bravery in the field during the defence of Quinn’s Post at Gallipoli. Briand was shot in the head and repatriated to Australia. He spent a year recovering then went back to the war. You will note that his service record is full of charges for being absent without leave. He obviously had a bit of an issue with following the rules. Perhaps Briand was the sort of bloke that would have pinched a street sign.
At the time of the battle of Bullecourt he had been reduced from Corporal to Private and was still under a sentence of two years hard labour for being absent without leave. A deferred sentence of hard labour meant that Briand would have still been serving with the Battalion but not receiving any pay. Briand’s gallantry at the battle of Bullecourt was beyond question. Not only did he fight his way into the German trenches and continue to fight when he and his mates had been cut off and surrounded, he tried to make a booby trap of his own body, using grenades, after he had been wounded – but was captured instead. The Germans held on to him for just over a year and repatriated into England where, despite still recovering from a crippling leg wound, he went absent without leave.
I think your Leon Jean Briand is one of the great characters of the AIF