15 May 2020

Villers-Bretonneux mayor who led bushfire commemorations dies of COVID-19

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Villagers from Villers-Bretonneux, France, march through farmland to honour Australia's bushfire victims.

Villagers from Villers-Bretonneux, in France, march in solidarity with Australian bushfire victims earlier this year. Photo: Supplied.

The Mayor of Villers-Bretonneux, a French village inextricably linked with Australia since WWI, and with the Bega Valley in particular, has died from COVID-19.

Dr Patrick Simon died on Wednesday, and a statement from his family described him as their “hero”.

He had been the village’s mayor since 2008 and recently led fundraising and commemorative efforts that recognised the devastating toll of the past summer’s bushfires in Australia. He was awarded an honorary Order of Australia medal in 2015.

Villagers from the northern French hamlet of Villers-Bretonneux have tended the friendship with Australia for more than a century. The village is the final resting place for more than 2000 Australian and Commonwealth servicemen, and the people of Victoria paid to rebuild the local school after the devastation of the Great War.

A sign above the L’Ecole Victoria (Victoria School) playground reads “Do Not Forget Australia”.

Dr Simon also oversaw the renovation of the Franco-Australian Museum in the township.

As bushfires engulfed the Bega Valley, the people of Villiers-Bretonneux rallied to Australia’s call for help from the mayor.

An online fundraising page received donations from more than 800 people, and more than 1000 people braved the winter chill for a solidarity march from the centre of the village to the Sir John Monash Centre Australian National Memorial, where a school choir sang a song specially written for the appeal entitled Australia, Stop Burning.

By late February, more than $37,000 had been raised. The proceeds are being shared between the firefighters of Robinvale in Victoria – which has enjoyed a longstanding relationship with Villers-Bretonneux – and the Bega Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund.

At the request of the Villers-Bretonneux community, the Bega Valley funds will be used within the Cobargo area.

Anzac Day this year marked 102 years since Australian diggers played a key role in liberating the French hamlet from German occupation as the carnage of the Western Front raged on during WWI.

Bega Valley Shire Mayor Sharon Tapscott described Dr Simon as a great friend of Australia and the Bega Valley.

“We have lost a great man and someone our community will forever be indebted to,” she said. “Our sincerest condolences go to Patrick’s family and the people of Villers-Bretonneux.”

Flags at the Australian embassy in Paris flew at half-mast in Dr Simon’s honour, and he has also been remembered in Robinvale, where Swan Hill Rural City Council Mayor Bill Moar said councillors had developed many close friendships with him and his colleagues.

Robinvale was named after Lieutenant George Robin Cuttle, who was killed in combat at Caix during the fight to liberate Villers-Bretonneux in May 1918.

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