Travels in France with my father’s father

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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.

A view of the fields in Seuilly, France from my front gate
The view from the window of my first housesit

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.

Black and white illustration of my grandfather in his army uniform
My grandfather Lot Sydney Forbes Barker, known as Syd

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.

Black and white photo of my father and his dog Laddie
Dad at the age of 18 with his cocker spaniel Laddie

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.

Black and white photo taken in 1928 in front of my grandfather's woodworking factory
Syd (second from right) and his staff in front of his factory in North Melbourne in 1928

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.

Aerial view of what was St Martin's Wood showing the Roman road between Villers-Bretonneux in the west and Fouceaucourt in the east
The 1918 trench map of St Martin’s Wood overlaid onto Google maps

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.

Black and white photo of 4.5inch howitzers used in WWI
4.5 inch howitzers

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.

Sign designating the town of Chuignolles in the Somme
The town closest to the site of the 12th Field Artillery Brigade on August 15 1918

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.

Dried poppies and rose petals, my boomerang branch and Australia-shaped stone with the Australian flag.
Mementoes for the field of battle

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.

Photo of father and daughter
Dad and me in 2016

And here’s the video of my time in France with my father’s father:

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15 thoughts on “Travels in France with my father’s father

    1. There are ways of doing it on a shoestring. Houseminding websites are one way of making the dream of a longer-stay trip come true. Most of my housesits also provided me with a car. So don’t dream it…

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  1. What a lovely and deeply emotional story. It must be fascinating to find out so much about this side of your family history. Your account has stirred an interest in me to do the same with my father’s family in Croatia. I loved the mementos you had collected. Your images are interesting and beautiful and I can see myself visiting this part of the world one day. Perhaps on my next overseas trip!

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  2. Thanks Shelley. It was an unexpected but thoroughly absorbing episode from my time in France. And it was the best gift I could have given my father. So jump on in I say!

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  3. How amazing that you were able to find out so much about your grandfather’s service. I wonder sometimes about the stories we’ve lost, the ones that have been buried with the people we love that they belonged too. It’s kind of nice that we can discover a little bit of those stories long after our loved ones have gone.

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  4. It was an unexpected gift from my grandfather to me and from me to Dad. I was helped along the way by a person I met on an online forum who had been on a similar journey. All he asked for in return was that I place a poppy on his uncle’s grave and another one on the tomb of the unknown soldier at the memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. I was also helped enormously by the hardworking staff at the Musée Franco-Australien at Villers-Bret. Altogether an experience I wouldn’t have missed.

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  5. Wow. What an incredible and powerful experience that must have been for you Elizabeth. You’ve inspired me to try a little harder to research my family history – I have previously managed to track down the house where my dad’s dad was born in Lancashire, but never got further than that. So thank you. I’m also inspired by the idea of overseas housesitting – what a winning way to travel! Thanks for sharing.

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  6. Elizabeth, such a fascinating journey. I am a family history buff and have little time to pursue it. Your story has inspired me to find the time.

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  7. Such a beautiful story on so many levels. Firstly, I lived in France for seven years so reading this made me homesick. (I moved there on my own after backpacking around Europe solo for six months). One year, I decided to visit Villers_Bretonneux for the Anzac Day Dawn Service. I even dragged the French boyfriend along, leaving Paris at 2am in the morning in order to get there for the 5am service. It was a moving service and adored the little village sprinkled with Australiana. Secondly, I, too, am researching my family history. In the last few months, my mind has been blown with information about my family history. I think it is important for us to connect with where we come from and to understand our ancestor’s stories. Thank you for sharing. I hope to visit France next year 🙂 Natalie

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  8. What a beautiful story, Elizabeth. It brought tears to my eyes. I’m sure your dad appreciated watching the video of the place where his father fought and the effort you took to find the exact location. I loved your commentary on the video. It looks so peaceful there now compared to what it must have been like in 1918.

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  9. I loved reading this Elizabeth. What a lovely and truly inspiring thing that you have done. It’s crazy to think how drastically different our lives are from those of our families only a couple of generations ago. I’m about to go and spend a few weeks living with my grandparents in Scotland over the winter break and reading this has inspired me to find out more about their lives. I should ask them questions about what life was like for them when they were my age, I’m sure I can learn lots from them and their experiences. Thank you for sharing this story with us!

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    1. I’m very glad to have inspired you to ask questions of your grandparents Kate. It’s a privilege for those with grandparents still alive. I hope to read of your experiences soon.

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  10. Beautiful story and fabulous photos. What a lovely way to explore your heritage and France, Mind my Home is such a great concept and I think that living in a local’s house is definitely the best way to explore a new city.

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    1. Thanks Serena. House sitting is all those things and more. It allows almost anyone to spend an extended time in another country without being prohibitively expensive. I realised for the first time how cheap I am to run – when I don’t have children to support!

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