“Alec said in a letter home that one minute Arthur was beside him and the next he was gone.” Jan Blake recalls the details from the day her great uncle Arthur Featherby died in World War I. Through the generations, Jan’s family have heard how Arthur was killed in action at Bullecourt. Alec McErvale, Arthur’s cousin, fought alongside him and was with him before he died. Alec was wounded and captured as a prisoner of war the same day that Arthur was killed.
Arthur, from the Victorian farming town of Daytrap, was only 30 when he voluntarily enlisted as a soldier in May 1916. He eventually travelled to France to fight with the 46th Battalion before he was killed in action the following April. Arthur was one of thousands of Australian and British soldiers who fought in the trenches along the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt during World War I. Jan and her partner Peter Cleghorn are now the custodians of Arthur’s wartime history and keep his lasting legacy secured – service medals, a letter of recognition from King George V, and Arthur’s heartfelt postcards home to his mum. “There was a huge amount of soldiers killed on that day,” Jan reveals. The battles fought that April proved to be some of the bloodiest in Australia’s military history and Australia experienced its worst defeat of the War on April 11.
Many Australian family histories are peppered with harrowing wartime accounts such as this, and many Australians are forever connected to their relatives who have fought, and in many cases died, in these wars. Some Australians decide to travel to destinations such as Turkey and France to pay respects to their lost relatives, and all Australian servicemen and women, who sacrificed their lives.
The decision to travel to France independently in memory of Jan’s great uncle was a natural one. Peter and Jan are seasoned independent travellers and spend at least six months of every year travelling in their caravan around Australia. Peter had always wanted to travel to France also, in memory of his grandfather’s time in the Navy as a merchant seaman during World War I, as well as Italy for the food (he’s a retired chef). So, they’ve decided to make the most of their long-haul trip to Europe and visit France, Italy, Switzerland and England while stopping off in Kuala Lumpur and Dubai along the way. Their trip is for six weeks and they’ll be accompanied by Jan’s sister Valerie.
Peter, Jan and Valerie plan to hire a car in France so they can attend the dawn service on ANZAC Day, April 25, in the Somme at Villers-Bretonneux. They also plan to visit Arthur’s grave and surrounding towns which were once, collectively, the scene for such awful wartime conditions and brutal combat. Their trip, like the ones many Australians embark on each year, will be an unnerving and emotional one. Though, it’ll also be an opportunity for Peter, Jan and Valerie to drive through France and experience what the country provides travellers today. Given the extensiveness of their trip, Peter and Jan have had to be organised and thorough. So, they’ve provided their tips for those who are considering an independent journey such as this.
Do your research
Because of the independent and historical nature of their trip, Peter and Jan chose to research their options extensively and in advance. They turned to travel expos and local travel publications for inspiration and leads. Peter and Jan were also travel-smart by talking to friends and relatives about their plans. Through this casual networking, Peter and Jan were able to discover new contacts which resulted in them booking reliable accommodation in France and Italy. Peter and Jan benefitted further by booking their air travel through a small, local travel agent. “The service is personable, they’re efficient and they’re good at their job,” Jan insists.
Extensive research was also undertaken into Arthur’s military history. Peter and Jan used reference books and Australian military records that are free to access online through the National Australian Archives and Department of Veterans’ Affairs. This research has given them the insight needed before they arrive into the areas where Arthur fought and where he now lays to rest.
A trip like this requires planning in advance, to ensure that transport and accommodation can be secured during and either side of ANZAC Day. Peter and Jan planned their trip around ANZAC Day in order to avoid disappointment as local accommodation books out very quickly. Peter and Jan have found a lovely self-contained B&B in the Somme that is within easy reach of Bullecourt and Villers-Bretonneux, and walking distance to local village shopping for groceries. The owners have offered valuable, local knowledge to Peter and Jan already, and side tours of the area can be booked if they wish. “We started planning at least 12 to 18 months in advance; we booked the Somme a year ago!” Jan confirms. “Make sure your accommodation includes all cleaning services and linen; you’ll be hit for these if you have a flat rate.”
Hire a Car
Peter and Jan enjoy, and insist on, independence when they travel. Hiring a car in France will provide them with this so they can explore at a localised, more intimate level and at their own pace. This is particularly important when Australians are visiting France to pay respects to relatives who fought in the war. A car will also allow Peter, Jan and Valerie to arrive at the dawn service early before it gets too busy. They’ve been advised they’ll need to drive to neighbouring Péronne and park the car then take a quick bus-ride to the dawn service site as the area will be blocked off to traffic.
Australians can apply for an international license endorsed for a motor vehicle without completing any testing if they already have a domestic license on hand. Applications can be made through local traffic authorities and Peter experienced a quick turnaround after his application was lodged. “We now just have to learn the traffic instructions for Europe,” Peter laughs. “We’ll try to avoid the highways and go the back-ways.” He has also discovered that it’s cheaper to purchase a satellite navigation system loaded with European maps when he arrives in Europe, than it is to update the maps on his existing Australian hardware.
Peter and Jan also recommend that travellers take out car hire, rather than leasing a car. This will save them a lot of money and provide flexibility when picking up the car in Paris and dropping it back to the agent in their depot in Rome.
Keep to a budget
It’s tempting to spend over budget when an overseas trip is being planned. Peter and Jan have kept to their budget by securing competitive prices for their air travel and car hire. Adding in extra stopovers break up a gruelling flight from Australia, and Peter advises that “good deals can be found when an extra stop is thrown in”.
Consider extensive travel and health policies
It’s an unwritten law for travellers to take out travel insurance. Peter has existing health ailments, so he has also ensured that his health cover will cover him extensively for the trip’s duration. His tip: “Make sure your health insurance policy covers the countries you’re travelling to.”
Pack for all seasons
Peter and Jan will be leaving Melbourne in its cool autumn months, but they’ll be experiencing summer in the northern hemisphere. Peter and Jan have also been advised that it will be particularly cold when they attend the dawn service at Villers-Bretonneux. Jan is already well-equipped and will be packing seasonal clothing into smaller packs that will fit neatly inside their suitcases. It’s an effective way to keep Peter and Jan’s suitcases organised, optimise space and allow them both to be prepared for any fluctuations in weather.
Peter and Jan plan to utilise money belts for their personal security and will take a mix of currencies and cards. Peter and Jan have also opted to take out a special credit card that will be accepted wherever they go. Peter recommends: “Currency should be purchased pre-trip when rates are high.”