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.
Charles Hedley Wood joined the Australian Imperial Force aged 19 in August 1914: one of the first to enlist, it appears that actually he may have lied about his age and was only 16 in 1914 – he certainly looks very young in the photo.
A century ago today he landed in the second wave at ANZAC with the 6th Battalion AIF and fought with them in the trenches above the beaches until he was wounded on 8th May 1915. That brought his war to an end; he was subsequently discharged but he was certainly alive fifty years after Gallipoli to claim his ANZAC medal in the 1960s.
Today we remember the original Diggers like him who were part of Australia’s baptism of fire in the Great War and at the dawn of their country coming of age a hundred years ago today.
On this day when the first ANZACs came ashore at Gallipoli in 1915, remembering the sacrifice of Australian and New Zealanders on many battlefields from Gallipoli to the Western Front and beyond.
It is apt to recall that sacrifice in the words of one of those original ANZACs who served at Gallipoli, Leon Gellert.
The Last to Leave
The guns were silent, and the silent hills
had bowed their grasses to a gentle breeze
I gazed upon the vales and on the rills,
And whispered, “What of these?’ and “What of these?
These long forgotten dead with sunken graves,
Some crossless, with unwritten memories
Their only mourners are the moaning waves,
Their only minstrels are the singing trees
And thus I mused and sorrowed wistfully
I watched the place where they had scaled the height,
The height whereon they bled so bitterly
Throughout each day and through each blistered night
I sat there long, and listened – all things listened too
I heard the epics of a thousand trees,
A thousand waves I heard; and then I knew
The waves were very old, the trees were wise:
The dead would be remembered evermore-
The valiant dead that gazed upon the skies,
And slept in great battalions by the shore.
Leon Gellert, Australian Gallipoli veteran, 1924
More than 220,000 British, Commonwealth and French troops were casualties at Gallipoli; Turkish casualties were at least a quarter of a million, although some estimates put the true figure at many more than that. The British buried their dead but many bodies remained unburied at the time of the evacuation in 1916. When British parties returned in 1919 they found several cemeteries desecrated, and in the majority of cases the final resting place of British and Commonwealth dead could not be ascertained.
This image dates from 1919/20 and shows a ‘collection of bones & skulls’ – whether these are British and Commonwealth, French or Turkish, is impossible to say but they show the huge problem facing the burial parties that returned after the war and in this ANZAC week the image offers us a sobering insight into the sacrifice made in Turkey – by all sides – in 1915.
Today is Anzac Day – the day in 1915 when Australian and New Zealand troops landed alongside British and French troops at Cape Helles in the Gallipoli Campaign. The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) had been formed in Egypt and Gallipoli was their baptism of fire. Despite the fact that more French troops died at Gallipoli than Australian, it has become something of a national obsession for Australia – and to a lesser sense New Zealand – with many thousands observing today as a day of remembrance at home in Australia and New Zealand, on the battlefields in France and Flanders, in Great Britain and also with a Dawn Service in Gallipoli itself; attended by an increasing number of people.
The very first Dawn Service at Gallipoli was on 25th April 1923, pictured here on this image that comes from a small collection of Australian images I have. A crowd of Anazc Gallipoli veterans along with some families of those who had died in the campaign assembled on the beach where the Australian landings had taken place. This was the birth of the service performed earlier this morning but this image captures in time men for whom the experience was not even a decade old. Out of shot in the background was even a Gallipoli war horse; a horse from the Light Horse that had been brought from Australia and was still owned by the officer who had ridden it during the war.
Australia and New Zealand paid a mighty price for their service in the Great War; Gallipoli was only the start, with more men from both countries dying on the Western Front in the remaining years of the war. While Anzac Day connections us to Gallipoli, it is right and proper we remember them all, as many thousands of Anzac descendants will be doing across the globe today.