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Charles hails courage of allied troops on 100th anniversary of key battle

The Prince of Wales attended early-morning commemorations in France marking the centenary of the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux in April 1918.

The Prince of Wales has paid tribute to the bravery of men who fought and died in a battle which marked a crucial turning point in the First World War.

Speaking during early-morning commemorations to mark 100 years since the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux, where Australians fought alongside British troops to free the French town from German capture, he said they must continue to be honoured and told descendants that the courage of their ancestors was “amazing”.

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Thousands of volunteer soldiers took part in the surprise night-time attack to save the small town near Amiens from capture on April 24 1918.

The battle was the second there in as many months and was notable for being the first major use of tanks by Germany.

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Some 3,900 Australians in the 13th and 15th Brigades fought alongside three British battalions in the simple but dangerous plan which saw troops encircle the town to trap the enemy. By morning they were virtually surrounded.

Its success effectively put an end to the Germans’ 1918 spring offensive.

Charles, on behalf of the Queen, joined Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his French counterpart, Edouard Philippe, at the Australian National Memorial just outside Villers-Bretonneux.

The event coincided with Anzac Day commemorations around the world – the Australian and New Zealand national day of remembrance on April 25 honours those who served and died in conflict and also notes the anniversary of the Gallipoli landings.

The Australian Army Band and the Voices of Birralee choir greeted an 8,000-plus crowd with traditional wartime music and anthems as they arrived in their droves in the early hours.

The audience, many wrapped in blankets, listened silently amid the darkness as a roll of honour for soldiers was read while their pictures were illuminated one by one against a tower.

A Spirit of Place ceremony opened the event, with an indigenous didgeridoo performance before a dawn service began.

Wearing an array of medals and a tie representing the Royal Australian Armoured Corps, of which he is Colonel in Chief, the prince read from the diary of Australian Private Frank Purnell, who described life in the trenches and the heroes he met.

Charles was first to lay a wreath on the steps of the memorial ahead of other dignitaries and hundreds of members of the public.

By sunrise, he was at an official breakfast meeting representatives from 17 nations who fought on the Western Front and Australian Football League (AFL) players Edward Morgan and Priscilla Lodge, who each year play an Anzac Cup game.

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They presented him with a sports jersey personalised with “Wales 70” to mark his milestone birthday later this year.

Women’s team captain Ms Lodge said: “He showed interest in the game and, when we asked if he would have a kick around with us later, he said ‘Perhaps, we’ll see’.”

He also had time to question performer David Dahwurr Hudson on the secret to didgeridoo success and see another demonstration.

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Mr Hudson asked Charles about the spiritual healing ritual he encountered on his recent visit to Australia, where the instrument was played near his chest.

He added: “The prince said he loved it so I offered him a repeat performance.”

The prince ended his visit by viewing the newly opened Sir John Monash Centre, which tells the story of Australia’s involvement in the military action using interactive displays.

It is named after the lieutenant general who led the Australian Corps on the Western Front in 1918, including the July 4 1918 victory at Le Hamel, and uses letters, diaries and pictures to tell the stories of his troops.

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After signing a guest book and posting a tribute, Charles met descendants of those who were embroiled in battle.

Royal Flying Doctor Andrew Barron and his 11 relatives travelled to France from Brisbane to honour his great-grandfather, Captain Earnest Docker, who survived the battle when serving with the 13th Australian Field Ambulance.

Mr Barron said: “It was a very moving service and great to meet the prince. He said it was wonderful that all of us could be here and said he found our story fascinating.”

Charles told Matt Harvey and Jane Hayman, from Melbourne, that it was “quite amazing” that both their great-grandfathers – Bruce Hunt and Bruce Ross – served in artillery on the Western Front and survived, expressing his sadness at the poor conditions they endured.

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The Princess Royal’s second husband, Tim Laurence, vice chairman of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, accompanied the prince on the trip after expressing an interest in seeing the exhibition.

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