Anzac Day behind the lines

Curator Jenny Long at the “Somewhere In France” exhibition with a Moët & Chandon champagne cork from 1918, collected by Signaller Ray Jones. Photo: Jason South.

The Champagne cork is weathered. Rust has found a foothold in its twisted steel muselet wire cage. It’s almost 100 years since Australian troops popped it from a bottle of Moët & Chandon behind the lines in Rouen, France. The bloke who souvenired it in 1918, Signaller Ray Jones, had been in Gallipoli himself. He wrote this about the cork in a letter home to his family: “It was Anzac Day on Thursday last but on account of certain restrictions they were not able to celebrate it quite the same as they did on the previous year. Nevertheless there were a good number suffering from maux de tête the following morning.”

It’s not clear if Jones was one of those with a hangover but the artefact – from the University of Melbourne’s Somewhere in France: Australians on the Western Front exhibition – sheds an interesting light on what at least some Australian troops got up to when not actively fighting in the trenches during World War I.

Troops were marking Anzac Day as early as 1916, says exhibition curator Jenny Long, but it’s likely the 1918 celebrations were dampened by the fact they were busy recapturing the town of Villers-Bretonneux. “I think that’s why there were restrictions. It was during the German Spring Offensive and they were busy fighting.”

While much is made of sacrifice and lives lost and broken due to war at this time of year, this collaboration between the university’s archives and French studies departments offers a fascinating insight into what Australian soldiers did in their downtime. Ticket stubs and hotel receipts reveal a penchant for tourism in Paris; review and theatre programs show a healthy interest in the arts, particularly of the Folies-Bergere variety; and photographs and letters home describe interactions with French people, culture and language. More than half of the exhibits are drawn from the collection of meticulous recorder Signaller Jones, who worked in a Sydney electrical goods store before the war and came home to tell the tale.

Long says Australian soldiers, who were volunteers, may have experienced the war differently to other Allied troops. “They were just trying to stay human,” she says. “And that’s what comes out, particularly in their diaries and letters. They’re not talking about the war much at all; they’re talking about what they ate, the weather, their interactions with French civilians. They’re just trying to live as normal-a-life as possible.”

Meanwhile, back home in Melbourne the returning letters and postcards were generating a wave of interest in everything French. Women such as Elsie Holmes of the Swallow & Ariell biscuit factory “Busy Bees” sent care packages full of socks and other comforts to French soldiers, via the Red Cross. “I love Elsie,” says Long, pointing out a scrapbook she made incorporating Tricoleur ribbon to great effect. “And the French government did give her a medal after the war, which is well deserved.”

Other interesting exhibits include a magazine (appropriately titled Aussie) providing helpful tips on how to chat-up French women; beautifully embroidered postcards surreally depicting bombed out and smouldering buildings; and a lengthy poem about lice.

Somewhere in France: Australians on the Western Front, is on until June 26. See library.unimelb.edu.au/france

Read this story where it was originally published in The Age, on Saturday 23 April, 2016.