When Rod Jennings found the grave of his uncle, killed in the trench warfare of World War 1, it was hard not to become emotional, as the former rugby league forward shed a tear, remembering the sacrifice of his relative.
Something like 320,000 Australian soldiers fought on the Western Front, with many paying the ultimate sacrifice. Rod Jennings’ uncle was one of those men.
Rod and his wife, Judy were part of my third ‘Kangaroo Supporters’ Tour’ to Britain and Europe, although this tour did not feature an Anglo-Australian Rugby League Test, as the ‘Super League War’, had turned the international timetable upside down.
My tour groups had followed the Kangaroos in 1990 and ’94, but this time the 31-strong group was primarily on a sight-seeing expedition, although we were to attend a league Test between Great Britain and New Zealand, at Watford.
We had started in Madrid, spending two nights there and then another two nights in Barcelona, before heading into France, where we stayed two nights at Carcassonne, and explored some of the history of rugby league in that part of the world, thanks largely to French coaching director, Louis Bonnery (see ‘Treated Like VIPs’ this website).
We checked out of the Mercure, Carcassonne on the morning of October 16, 1998 with yours truly having to settle a dispute over alleged unpaid moneys by members of our group. There had been a misunderstanding, but I sorted it.
Our coach was driven by former British Army officer, Alan Rosling from Bournemouth, who expertly navigated the hills, in the drive from Aude Province into the Tarn region, providing us with magnificent views of Mazamet. The idyllic morning came to an unexpected halt, when our brand-new Volvo coach broke down in the middle of nowhere, as we headed to the Roman aqueduct, Pont du Gard.
Mobile phones were around then, but Alan didn’t have one, and he had to flag down a lift to a nearby public telephone box, to contact ‘Volvo emergency’. They dispatched a local mechanic, but the bottom line was, that a part had to be driven overnight, from Gothenburg in Sweden, to ensure our travels could continue, long term.
Our tour group occupied themselves by playing petanque, with stones from the vineyard, where we stretched our legs, at the same time drinking beer from the Esky on the bus, or, in some cases, drinking the bubbly we had bought from Blanquette De Limoux, in the rugby league stronghold of Limoux. Easts’ chief executive, Brian Smart was particularly adept at our primitive form of this French pastime.
By the time we got back on the road, it was too late to visit Pont du Gard, so we headed straight to our accommodation, in Avignon, where the spare part arrived from Sweden, and mechanics worked through the night.
We were greeted by the news from home that Australia had won the rugby league Test series against New Zealand, as a result of a 36-16 win in the decider, at North Harbour Stadium, with Broncos’ centre, Steve Renouf scoring two tries. I had covered the First Test, back in May, when Darren Lockyer had a shocker, after he replaced injured starting fullback, Robbie O’Davis, at North Harbour. The Kiwis won that Test 22-16, so the win back at North Harbour, was redemption for ‘Locky’.
Avignon is a rugby league city, having produced the likes of speedy backs, Andre Ferren and Jean Ledru, who were members of the French squad which reached the 1968 World Cup final.
The next day, my tour group visited Pont du Gard, before a lunch stop in Aix-in-Provence, on our way to Nice, where we were to spend two nights.
On Sunday, October 18, we toured the hills behind Nice, including the perfume factory at Grasse and the beautiful village of Saint-Paul de Vence.
On Monday, October 19 we drove from Nice to Montreux in Switzerland, via a services lunch stop at Turin, in Italy. Our hotel on Lake Geneva was old, but had great character, and no two rooms were the same.
We had a free day in Montreux, and Marie and I chose to catch the cog rail to Les Avants, accompanied by Brisbane Souths’ stalwarts Jim and Lesley Gibson, from Tewantin. We walked part of the way back, along the beautiful shaded path, in Gorge du Chauderon.
Freiburg in Germany was our next destination, and from my hotel room I had a view of the railway station, watching commuters come and go. For some strange reason, I thought of World War II, and what it must have been like here, under the Nazis.
Thursday, October 22 was spent touring the Black Forest, with a Beer Hall dinner back at Freiburg to finish.
There was chaos at our Paris Hotel the following day, with management having overbooked. My wife, Marie and I, and Jim and Lesley Gibson had to stay over the road, where the accommodation was not as good.
Tour group members enjoyed a free day in Paris, and some of us found a bar, which showed the inaugural Super League Grand Final from Old Trafford, Manchester. Wigan beat Leeds 10-4, with Wigan’s Test winger, Jason Robinson man of the match. Australians, John Monie (Wigan) and Graham Murray (Leeds) were the coaches.
On Sunday, October 25 we headed for Dover, England, via the World War 1 battlefields, including the Australian War Memorial at Villers- Bretonneux. On April 4, 1918, the Germans launched an assault by 15 divisions and captured the town of Hamel. They prepared to take Hill 104 on the march to Villers-Bretonneux, but were held back by the Australians, one of many courageous actions by our troops, which saved Villers-Bretonneux from destruction.
Rod Jennings’ uncle endured the hell of the Western Front, and his grave is in one of the 596 cemeteries in France, where Australian servicemen are buried. The coach was subdued, as we headed for Calais and the ferry trip to Dover, In England, after London, the most heavily attacked town in Britain during World War II.
.Reports of our 1998 British and Irish travels, will follow at a later date.
1 Killing time in a French vineyard, with Brian Smart
2 Pam Van Dongen at Pont du Gard
3 Steve Ricketts in Gorge du Chauderon
4 Graham Beale and Aileen Bushnell pay their respects in a French war cemetery.