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Highest French honours for Aust couple

AAP logoAAP 23/07/2016 Lloyd Jones, AAP Europe Correspondent

Australians Barry Gracey and Yvonne Gracey-Hall have been awarded France's highest honour for their work in a small French village where Australian diggers fought and died in their thousands in World War I.

They are believed to be the first married couple to be awarded the Legion of Honour since Napoleon Bonaparte instituted the award in 1802.

The couple received the award in the village of Pozieres in France on Saturday on the 100th anniversary of the Australian attack on German positions there on July 23, 1916.

They have set up a Pozieres Remembrance Association and have raised money to buy land at the site of a windmill which was a key feature during the bloody Battle of Pozieres in the summer of 1916 which cost more than 6700 Australian lives.

When not living at their home in Coffs Harbour, NSW, the couple stay in Pozieres for several weeks each year.

Their work supporting and fund-raising for village institutions and promoting recognition of the Australian sacrifice in the village during World War I prompted village elders to recommend they receive national recognition.

Among their work for the village was arranging funding through the Catholic Church in Australia to replace a broken stained glass window in the local church which the village could not afford to do.

French Brigadier-General Francois Loeuillet, who bestowed the awards on the couple on Saturday, told AAP it was an historic day because it was the first time that a couple had been distinguished by the first order of the Legion of Honour.

He said the couple's work over the years in strengthening the memory of the World War I battle at Pozieres had helped strengthen French and Australian relations and was deemed to be worthy of the highest honour.

Mr Gracey, 62, said the village was their "friend and family" and they preferred to receive the award there rather than in Paris where they had been invited to receive it in an official ceremony.

He said he was "overwhelmed and humbled" after originally being nominated for a national order of merit.

"We were quite pleased by that and then the mayor sat us down the other day and said unfortunately we didn't get it, President Hollande had upgraded it to the Legion d'honneur.

"We were flabbergasted, we didn't speak for at least four or five days, now is the day when the stress is finally off and we're exhausted."

Mr Gracey said Pozieres had not received the same amount of Australian government attention as other battlefields where Australians fought and died in World War I, and many Australians had never heard of it.

He said they had now bought the land where so many Australians had died "and those men are now safe for all time, they will be never dug up".

He said he and his wife would now try to raise the money in Australia to put in gardens at the site where people could visit and think about the men who died there.

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