Travels in the Somme with my father’s father

An unexpected detour during a six month stay in France links three generations of my family to a village in the Somme.

A version of this post first appeared on RMIT’s creativehiveblog in May 2017.

On Anzac Day 2015, I left Australian shores for six months travelling solo in 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 – Cinais in the Loire – the first of a series of housesits courtesy of a housesitting website called MindMyHouse.

First World War Australian soldiers bound for the Somme | more on diywoman.net
Syd Barker (second from left) and his brothers

While I was in the Loire, I started an online search of 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.

Head shot of young man | More on www.diywoman.net
Dad at 18

My father had little opportunity to find out about his father’s experiences in the war.

Syd died in 1947 – when Dad was just 18 – of complications from his exposure to mustard gas. While I was in France in 2015, 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 so early. And then to take on the family engineering business at so young an age.

Workers standing outside factory | See more on www.diywoman.net
Syd Barker (second from right) standing with his staff in front of his factory

It was a privilege to undertake this research on my father’s behalf.

He was an only child who had no one else’s memories to compare with his own. It was my gift to Dad, who had spent much of his working life overseas when I was a child. I got to know him better from a distance of 10,000 miles away. He got to know his own father better with every piece of information I gathered.

Wartime map of the Somme | More on www.diywoman.net
The 1918 trench map of St Martin’s Wood overlaid onto Google maps

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’s Wood. I was then 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. They were trained on the fields of battle from artillery brigades positioned several miles away.

Artillery on the WWI battlefields | More on www.diywoman.net
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’s Wood to the south-west, when they came under attack from mustard gas.

Sign with name of French town on the Somme | More on www.diywoman.net

I managed to locate the exact spot of the attack, as designated by the co-ordinates. There I scattered dried poppies and rose petals from the Loire around the (kind of) ‘boomerang’ branch and the (kind of) Australia-shaped stone I had found in the fields near Cinais.

Dried flowers | See more on www.diywoman.net

Four months earlier, when I left Australia for France, I had no idea this journey to the Somme would be part of my time there.

I had brought nothing from home to leave at the site. Somehow the petals, wood and stone were just right. 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.

Father and daughter | More on www.diywoman.net

April 24 2018 will mark the first anniversary of my father’s death and the centenary of the famous ‘night of the Australians‘ when Australian troops pushed back the Germans from Villers Bretonneux, just 10 miles from Chuignolles.

War memorial in France | See more on www.diywoman.net
The Australian National Memorial at Villers Bretonneux

I plan to attend the dawn service at the Australian National Memorial at Villers Bretonneux on April 25 2018.

On the anniversary of my father’s death, I will return to that beautiful part of France. Once the scene of battle, it is now a place of peace. I will remember my father and his father in the countryside that brought the three of us together. Surrounded by the gently rolling hills of the Somme, I can’t imagine a place I would rather be.

Here is the link to the video I made for my father at Chuignolles in 2015.

6 thoughts on “Travels in the Somme with my father’s father

  1. Thanks for your positive comments. I’m enjoying writing it. I plan to post updates on my travel plans to Villers Bretonneux between now and April 2018 so I hope you’ll enjoy following my adventure.

  2. Beautifully written Elizabeth, a very moving and heart felt story, thank you for sharing it. Your ancestors will also be duly proud of you for doing so,

  3. Thanks Kerry. I’ve been surprised and pleased by the readers’ reactions to this story. It seems to have stirred some of them to action. It’s the sort of thing we all think about but often don’t get around to doing. I was exceptionally lucky to have had the opportunity.

  4. I do so love this memoir Elizabeth. There’s something very special about daughters writing about fathers. Mothers get so much print space, fathers not so much. You are so lucky to have such photos and records to keep these memories alive.

  5. We live in an age when research on our forebears is so much easier to access Gab. I consider it a privilege to have shared this experience with my father and now with readers like you. Thanks for your words of encouragement.

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