We arrived. After talking about it for years and wondering what it would be like to actually be in “Gay Paree” we found ourselves in the huge station just before 5 o’clock on Sunday, 22nd May. We knew there would be some excitement, but we immediately found some which we had not anticipated.
When we arrived at our hotel we did not like the rooms allotted to us and I informed the man in charge I would have to get something better, seeing that we were going to stay for five days, or else I would not stay in the hotel. We saw other rooms and they were worse, with the result that we were then taken to another hotel which was very much better. Two other people who were also from New Zealand complained with us and they came with us. Dr. O’Grady heard of this and he came to see the new hotel and then decided to add a grievance and also joined our party. This got around amongst the others and the next day there were so many complaints that they were all moved to our hotel. I guess Cooks are now cursing us, while the rest of the party are giving us their blessing.
Early next morning we started for the battlefields of the Somme. We had a couple of hours in the train which took us to Amiens. Here we first saw the great cathedral which figured so prominently in the newspapers during the war. They did a wonderful piece of work to protect it from the shells and bombs of the Germans. There were thousands of tons of sand bags stacked up around it, but before this work was accomplished some of the very old and beautiful stained glass windows had been smashed by the concussion. After seeing something of the town and the manner in which it had been restored we went to the hotel for lunch.
The guide, who was a dinkum Aussie digger, took the men of the party to a little public house close by to meet another Aussie digger who had settled there after the war. They were both the same type and had been friends for years. This Australian had married a French girl and the bar trade was just about all he was fit for when the war was over. At the pub we got a little bit of the history of the guide and we learnt that he was a boundary rider in Queensland before the war, but had stayed in France for the same reason as the other man. I did not know whether this guide spread himself a little, because we were also an Australian party, but some of the yarns he pitched were a bit too tall even for us and consequently we did not know what to believe out of all he told us.
After lunch we got into a motor bus and drove for a couple of hundred miles around the battle fields. I found all those who had been to the war had quite a different conception of the country and the towns. For instance, we read in the papers years ago of the terrible fighting to capture the town of Pozieres and when we saw the little village it was difficult for us to understand why three or four shells had not blown it to pieces. We saw a number of cemeteries and war memorials. We went off our road to specially visit the new Australian memorial at Villers-Bretonneaux which is to be unveiled by the King of England on the 1st July.
Two of the most interesting parts of the battlefields were the “Big Bertha” at Chuignes, about 10 miles out of Amiens, and the trenches which have been kept in their original state in the Newfoundland memorial section.
The Big Bertha was captured by the Australians and ten feet of the huge barrel gun, which weighed over 90 tons was cut off and taken to Canberra as a little souvenir for the war memorial.
I photographed one of the party down the remainder of the barrel with his head and arms outside.
Apart from the very depressing part of the tour we enjoyed seeing the French country. Most of the traces of the war had been eradicated, but here and there we saw parts which had not been restored. All of the battlefields were now growing grain and sugar beet. In the fields there were hundreds of women working as in the other continental places we had visited. One thing which seemed strange to see was very noticeable – there were no fences. I enquired about this and was told that timber for fences in a land where every tree had been blown to pieces would be so costly that it was not attempted. There must be some difficulty in deciding where one man’s farm starts and another ends, but they appear to manage quite well. However, we drove over many miles without seeing a fence of any kind.
It was nearly 8 o’clock when we reached our hotel and while we were all glad to have seen the sights we hope the younger generation will never see such a war in their time.
So far, we had seen very little of Paris and the next day was set aside for this. Starting early in the morning we travelled over some of this great city in a motor bus. There were two guides and they took it in turns to tell us about the various places as we passed.
Several times I thought we must surely hit something in the traffic, the like of which I have never seen. Even in Sydney there is nothing like it.
The joke is that to me there appeared to be very little traffic control, as every man seemed to do just as he liked and at many intersections they get mixed up coming in every direction at once and yet the guide told us there were fewer motor accidents in Paris than in any other part of the world.
At one corner we were in a proper jam and after waiting for several minutes our driver just drove over the footpath and got around the corner that way. It would be impossible to describe here all the things we saw.
Of course, there was the famous Notre-Dame cathedral and the Opera House, which is the largest in the world, the old King’s Palaces which are now the largest museum in the world, the tomb of Napoleon and the triumphal arch which he started to build so that his victorious soldiers could pass under it.
We drove over some of the many bridges on the Seine, through the fashionable residential area and then through the old part of Paris, which is known as the Latin quarter. Here we saw the horse butchers, which are designated by having a model of a horse’s head outside. I saw horse flesh in this place and I could see no difference from that of a bullock, except that perhaps it was larger.
When we got back to the hotel at night I did not know whether I was on my head or my feet. I had heard so much and seen so much that I was suffering from mental indigestion.
At night we had booked seats for the Folies Bergere. This was a new experience for us. Some of the turns were very clever and pretty and others might have been clever if we had known all that was being said. It was a very good show on the whole, notwithstanding that some of he dancing girls were not very far short of their birthday clothes.
It is surprising to see how these French people can pick us out. The taxi we ordered to take us there seemed to go a very roundabout course to my mind. However, he was paid the fare, plus a couple of francs for a trip. The man we got on the homeward journey certainly took us much further, as his fare was half as much again and as it was after midnight he was also entitled to double fare. In this case he knew we were foreigners as we could not speak the language, but it was different when we entered the theatre. Here, before we had spoken a word, a man came up to sell us a programme “In English”. I bought two, to find that 99% of it was in French.