This blog tells of a trip to France that linked three generations of my family to a tiny village in the Somme. Written for the Travelling Solo section of diywoman.net, the purpose of the post is twofold: to provide advice and encouragement for single women who want to travel, and as a loving tribute to my father and his father. DIY Woman’s guide to separation, divorce and living happily ever after is a space where single women of any age are encouraged to stay high viz in a world that would have them fade to grey.
On Anzac Day 2015, I left Australian shores for France. Unlike my grandfather a century before, I wasn’t destined for the muddy fields of the Somme. My destination was another part of rural France altogether, the first of a series of housesits over six months courtesy of a housesitting website called Mind My House.
During the course of my time in France, I developed a strong interest in my grandfather’s war service. Lot Sydney Forbes Barker – known as Syd – enlisted in November 1916 at the age of 23 and was made a gunner in the 12th Field Artillery Brigade. At 5’ 7” and of slight build, he would normally have been considered too small for such a physically demanding role.
My father had little opportunity to find out about his father’s war service. Syd died in 1947 – when Dad was just 18 – of complications from his exposure to mustard gas.
While I was in France, Dad was very much engaged in my research on his father, a man he described as his ‘great friend’. I gained an insight into how hard it must have been for Dad to lose his father and take on the family engineering business at so young an age.
In the course of my research online into the national archives, I found the 1918 trench map indicating the target of Syd’s brigade on the day he was gassed – an area that was then called St Martin Wood.
With some further delving I was able to work out the exact co-ordinates for the 12th Field Artillery Brigade on that day. The ‘guns’ used in WWI were 4.5 inch howitzers – more like cannons than guns – that were trained on the fields of battle from several miles away.
Syd and his brigade were on the outskirts of a tiny village called Chuignolles, guns facing in the direction of St Martin Wood to the south-west, when they came under attack from mustard gas.
When I had located the exact spot designated by the co-ordinates, I scattered dried poppies and rose petals from the Loire around the (kind of) ‘boomerang’ branch and the (kind of) Australia-shaped stone I found in the fields at Seuilly.
Four months earlier, when I had left Australia, I had no idea this journey to the Somme would be part of my time in France. I brought nothing from home to leave at the site, but I treasure the memories of the valuable time I spent with my grandfather and the opportunity it gave me to learn more about his son. Dad died on Anzac Day 2017.
And here’s the video of my time in France with my father’s father: