WW1 Photos Centenary Website: 2014-2018 By Paul Reed

An Aboriginal Digger


I came across this image on the excellent WW1 Photographs Facebook page and owner Ian Roofthooft very kindly let me use it here. It is part of a collection he has showing Allied prisoners in Germany and what drew me to this image was the fact that it depicts an Australian soldier of Aboriginal heritage. Images of these men are not unique but are rare. But who was he? On the rear of the image was this inscription:


It was not initially clear whether this was the man shown or it was a reference to another soldier who may have owned the image originally. A search of the Australian War Memorial site showed that this soldier was Robert George Garner. He appeared on various nominal rolls which showed that he had served with the 17th Battalion Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and had departed for war in June 1916. The next step was to find his service record and his physical description. The records confirmed the address stated on the postcard and the physical description showed the following:


Wartime attestation papers like these did not use the term ‘Aboriginal’ when describing these men and the clue that confirms it for this soldier is how they describe his skin complexion as ‘very dark’. This can only mean that the man in the photo is the same person who signed it on the back and this is a photo of Aboriginal soldier Robert George Garner. But what of his war?

After making the crossing to England he spent some time at a Depot before being posted to the 17th AIF in France in November 1916. At this time they were on the Somme front at the start of what would be the coldest winter of the war. He was crimed for drunkenness in December and in January 1917 was admitted to hospital with sickness, an all too common occurrence in the AIF at that time as they suffered more casualties from the elements than the enemy. He rejoined his battalion in February and in April the 17th were involved in the early actions against the Hindenburg Line. On 15th April 1917 the Germans launched a massive counter attack against the 17th AIF at Lagnicourt and while the line held, there were heavy casualties and many Diggers became prisoners of war. One of them was Garner who was reported missing and then confirmed as being a prisoner of war. He had been wounded in the legs and spent the remainder of the war as a POW – which is when this image was taken. He was repatriated from Germany in November 1918 and returned to Australia in 1919. Little is known about his life post-war.

Robert George Garner was one of more than a thousand Aboriginal Australians who served in the Great War and I am proud to have his image on the site to remember their contribution to the Australian Imperial Force in WW1.

16 responses

  1. That’s a wonderful picture Paul, thanks for sharing that and accompanying back story. We have a couple of photographs of Maori soldiers on our website. Not sure if these are as rare as Aboriginal soldiers, or more commonplace? I thought you might know http://www.maryevans.com/lb.php?ref=31138

    08/05/2015 at 11:37

    • sommecourt

      Thanks Luci. I have a few of Maoris but I don’t think images of any of these kind of men are that common. Good to see those ones you have.

      08/05/2015 at 13:38

  2. brilliant stuff, amazing photo

    08/05/2015 at 12:54

  3. What a wonderful picture and information. This gentleman is my Great Grandfather 😊

    29/05/2015 at 04:09

    • Hi tales197. Ian Roofthooft also posted this to my fb group and gave permission to use it as well in my collection of photographs of Aboriginals in War Service.. I would be extremely grateful if you could contact me about the photograph please. Thanks joanne.klein@hotmail.com

      03/05/2016 at 06:35

  4. Wonderful picture and information. This gentleman is my Great Grandfather 😊

    29/05/2015 at 04:10

    • sommecourt

      Wow – that’s amazing! Had you seen this photo before?

      30/05/2015 at 19:11

  5. doug lawrence

    this man is my wife’s grandfather and she recently found his grave at Rookwood cemetery

    29/04/2016 at 11:28

  6. Joanne Klein

    Ian Roofthooft also posted this to my fb page and gave me permission to use this photograph for my collection of Aboriginals in War Service. Thanks again Ian. It’s a great photo.

    03/05/2016 at 06:25

  7. Jenelle

    I found Robert George Garner’s POW record on line at the International Red Cross Records which are now on line.

    03/05/2016 at 07:05

  8. Michael bell

    Good Morning all,
    I have some information that could suggest that the photo is/could be misidentified. The photo has the following inconsistencies, the colour patch appears to be light over dark rectangle most likely 1st Division 4th Battalion (NSW raised), he has 3 wound stripes on left sleeve, Garner’s record does not reflect this an the shoes are no standard issue. There is nothing to indicated the place the photo was taken.

    Once again the chase is on, do you have a confirmed/known photo of R G Garner 5015?

    Hope you can help and much appreciate your assistance.
    Thank you
    Michael Bell
    Indigenous Liaison Officer
    Australian War Memorial

    16/05/2016 at 03:51

    • Ian

      Hello Michael,

      I am 100% sure about the place the photo was taken. I own dozens of photographs of P.O.W.’s at Camp Dülmen, a lot of them with the same background. Many soldiers didn’t had their original uniforms in P.O.W.-Camps.
      His family comfirmed that this is Mr. Garner.

      Kind regards,

      Ian Roofthooft

      10/09/2016 at 19:39

  9. thank you that photo is my Pops brother, love it

    31/05/2016 at 12:06

  10. This is Mr Garner. What a photo.

    06/10/2016 at 10:04

  11. Katherine Stubbs

    Robert George Garner may not be of aboriginal descent. His mother was Clara Garner who was the daughter of Charles Garner . In the Hill End Pioneer Register Charles Garner is listed as having been born in Iowa or Indiana USA and so may be of Negro descent.

    23/06/2017 at 07:53

    • Clara was Australian Indigenous for certain. And yes you are correct about Charles Garner originating from America. We are still trying to get to the bottom of it but we are almost certain Charles Garner was African American. We have been lucky enough, with extensive research, to discover that we have both Aboriginal and most likely African American decent connections in our family. I am Robert George Garner’s Great Granddaughter.

      26/08/2017 at 22:54

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