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Leave for the lucky

Australian soldiers on leave in London, strolling down a street, with Victorian buildings and advertising signs in the background
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Posted on December 22 2017

Australian soldiers serving on the Western Front were so far from home that some used their leave to venture to another homeland, Britain, heart of the Empire.

Leave or ‘furlough’ was granted occasionally and at short notice, but it was a welcome reprieve from the horrors of war, giving troops time to rest and restore their morale.

While on leave, soldiers called on the hospitality of relatives, friends or voluntary organisations such as the Young Men’s Christian Association, and they used their time for sightseeing, wining and dining, theatres, movies, and other adventures.

Upon being granted leave, an Australian soldier could board a special train in France, take a boat to Folkestone in England, and then catch another train to Victoria Station in London.

After collecting fresh uniforms at port, soldiers reported to the Australian Imperial Force headquarters where they received their pay and the orders and regulations for leave.

For many, their three or four-day pass was a long-awaited chance to get to know the Mother Country. At the time, most Australians regarded themselves as British subjects.

All I have to write about is Paris. …

Leave in London, however, could be difficult for soldiers trying to assimilate back into civilian life.

The rough manners of the trenches did not sit well with British culture, and there was no guarantee of safety, with German aircraft flying overhead.

Paris was another ‘furlough’ favourite, being closer to the front line, some men preferred its attractions and atmosphere.

In Paris, soldiers could experience a cosmopolitan culture, yet relax.

They went to the theatre, dined out affordably, enjoyed music and dancing, and promenaded the streets, often with a French belle.

One soldier wrote of his idyllic break in 1917, strolling the city’s tree-lined boulevards: ‘All I have to write about is Paris. … Right in the centre of the city you come across stretches of footway a quarter of a mile long, just a shady walk, through the top of which one can only catch occasional glimpses of the sun above. It’s great. Imagine the Block in Collins Street with the footpath easily twice the width …’

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