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.