`Bonjoor Paree!' the First AIF in Paris, 1916-1918(1)

Article excerpt

By 1914 the attraction of Paris for travellers and tourists was world renowned. As the political, cultural and artistic centre of Europe, it was the excitement and fullness of la vie Parisienne that mesmerised its visitors. In 1916 the first Australian soldiers arrived in the French capital, emotionally and physically drained from the horrors of the western front. There they would spend four or five days leave, experience the same intensity and express the same wonder and amazement at the city and its sights as many tourists had done before them. This paper explores different perspectives on the Australian soldier's response to the city, and argues that Paris came to symbolise much more than mere rest from battle.

In 1909 the Australian writer H M Green recorded his impressions of Paris for readers of The Lone Hand, a monthly offshoot of The Bulletin. He was, in his opinion, an `interested traveller' and claimed to identify a distinct colonial response to Paris: `the quickening touch is in the atmosphere, and I think, to an Australian, sooner evident'. Before admitting the atmosphere was `quite incapable of words', Green endeavoured to capture its source:

   There is a sort of atmosphere about the place that invades you at the very
   station, looks out at you from the small, twinkling eyes of the dirty, old,
   bottle-nosed cab drivers; from the alert, vivacious faces of the people in
   the streets; from the shrug of the men's shoulders, the cut of their
   clothes and the careless swing of their canes; from the way the women carry
   themselves, and, above all, from the light-hearted drift and chatter about
   the cafes.(2)

Whilst this is not a distinctly Australian response, it does illustrate the rapport Australians could establish with Paris and its cafe life, and something of the awe in which tourists held the city. Paris offered both visual and sensual interaction of the highest calibre to its visitors -- and its magnetism was also based on a reputation for a quality tourist experience in only a short period of time.

Seven years later, the first Australian soldiers would take Paris leave and for four or five days immerse themselves in the same atmosphere that proved so intoxicating for H M Green. When Harry Buckie, a draughtsman from Victoria in the First AIF, arrived in Paris in October 1918 his reaction was similar: `The atmosphere seems to sweep you clear off your feet. The first thing you say is "oh hang it all here goes for a gay time". Then there is the artistic side which anyone can see. The people too are so lively. They are born optimists ... they are always smiling'.(3) The continuation of la vie Parisienne in all its fullness, despite the war, ensured Paris would become, paradoxically, a metropolitan oasis amidst a desert of death and destruction. In this paper I shall examine the experiences of some members of the First AIF when they took Paris leave between 1916 and 1918; since the influence of Paris during these years was felt by more Australians than ever before, what they made of the experience is well worth considering. Their value lies particularly in what they can reveal of the Australian perception of Paris and the incongruities the city represented: its modernity and tradition, its sophistication and its reputation for the saucy and salacious. Furthermore, they paint a portrait of an urban landscape unaffected by the absurd proximity of the war, and an urban environment which became a revitalising life force for the soldiers who spent their leave there.

Foreign wars have performed a valuable historical purpose in closing the cultural distance between Australia and the world, yet Australian military historians have tended to focus more on the significance of these wars in the development of a distinct Australian identity. Australian travel writing has also failed to recognise the impact of the AIF tourist experience. This is surprising, given how exclusive `first-hand' knowledge of overseas travel had been prior to the departure of the First AIF. …