The last World War Two soldier

I was in a rush one day before Remembrance Day and quickly ducked into Quinton’s IGA in Warrandyte for some groceries. As I entered, I passed an elderly gentleman seated with this tray full of poppies fund-raising for the Returned Services League (RSL) of Australia. He had a baseball cap on and, like most men of a more respectable era, dress pants and an a jacket despite the warm weather. On his lapel were several badges and of course, a blood-red poppy. I back tracked, ignoring my urge to rush in and out of the shop as quick as I could, with my conscience telling me I needed to buy a poppy.

IMG_9553As I passed over my donation to support veterans, I asked the old Digger when did he serve. He answered “World War Two, I’m the last one.” I paused for a moment, thinking about of his understated remarks, ladened with a magnitude of meaning that I could not ever really hope to comprehend. Firstly, this proud but frail man sitting in the grocery store had served in a battle so great it is titled a “World War.” How could anyone who had never served on a battlefield hope to understand what that meant?

Secondly, I was caught off guard by simple but powerful words “I’m the last one.” I tried doing arithmetic about WWII, did he mean the last standing Digger in Australia or this local area or his battalion? I had to ask, but it did not matter if he was the last one in the country or the last one in the local area, anyone who says they are the “last one” of a group of friends, soldiers or a generation carries a heavy burden.

He was the last WWII Digger of the Warrandyte RSL Club.

The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) and the term “Diggers” became famous during the drawn out battles of WWI. The name Diggers has stuck to Aussie soldiers for over ninety years – not only known for their courage under fire, but their ability to dig in under the arduous circumstances.

RSL Club’s once graced nearly every town in Australia and are familiar as the proverbial kangaroo to Australians of all ages. Once flooded with returned soldiers from both World Wars and later Korea and Vietnam, the Clubs have slowly emptied, some closing their doors, ‘consolidating’, as Diggers from the Great War, then the following wars, slowly thinned in their ranks with the passing of time.

The rush of modern-day life then caught up with me, I had to move on: get the shopping done, get the kids and get moving. But that thirty-second conversation stayed with me, played on my mind…. “I’m the last one” and soon there would be none.  I wondered if someone had captured his story, recorded his thoughts, this Last Digger of Warrandyte. The last of his generation. The last of his mates.

IMG_8970Many weeks passed and I started a documentary photography course at Melbourne’s RMIT University under the direction of esteemed photographer Michael Coyne. We had to come up with subject ideas for our portfolio of photos and this Last Digger came to mind. My final project concept ended up being “Roundabout to Roundabout”, documenting life between Warrandyte’s two roundabouts, starting at the CFA Fire Station and ending at the Roundabout Cafe several kilometres away.

By this stage Remembrance Day had passed and there was no sign of the Last Digger at the local IGA. I would have to do my project without the poppy seller in my portfolio of life between the roundabouts. As I spent too many hours stalking people and businesses along Warrandyte Road, I got used to the rhythm of the old township, got to know the shop keepers by day and even several by night as the project developed.

And then on the last day of my portfolio shooting in Warrandyte, I saw in the distance a man in a baseball cap with a bit of a slow shuffle, making his way between the roundabouts. Despite the hot day, he was well dressed with a jacket and slacks and had his tray of RSL knickknacks in hand, still fundraising for current veterans and their families well passed Remembrance Day.

In one of my next blogs I will tell the remarkable story of the Last Digger of Warrandyte. In the meantime, I encourage anyone who knows a WWII soldier to ask them about their service…  before it is too late.

Advertisements

Australian Indigenous Response to World War One

Book Review: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Volunteers for the AIF: The Indigenous Response to World War One (Second Edition 2012)
Author: Philippa Scarlett


Private Harry Avery with an unidentified Aboriginal soldier (previously thought to be Douglas Grant) and an unknown British soldier, c 1918, courtesy of Rebecca Lamb.

I first came across Philippa Scarlett’s name as part of my research into World War One Australian Aboriginal soldier Douglas Grant. Philippa was a guest on an ABC Radio program with two other researchers, Garth O’Connell and David Huggonson. Garth and David had led the way some years earlier by documenting the neglected area of Australia’s Indigenous war service record.

The radio program had the well known portrait of a WWI Aboriginal soldier, standing next to Private Harry Avery and an unknown British soldier, as a prominent image on it’s website for the interview. This photo, said to be of Aboriginal WWI soldier Douglas Grant, is a key element of my own research – as I do not believe it is Douglas Grant, but another unidentified Indigenous serviceman. About a year later, David Huggonson put me into contact with Philippa, who he said had just completed the most recent published book on the subject, had reviewed many photographs and was applying a solid analytical approach to her research.

After several discussions and emails, Philippa agreed to take a more detailed look at the photo in question and became the first independent researcher in the area to agree with my hypothesis: the Aboriginal soldier standing next to Private Harry Avery in the WWI portrait is not Douglas Grant, 13th Battalion, Atherton Queensland. Unfortunately, this particular tale is yet to be resolved, the Aboriginal companion of Private Avery is still yet to be identified.

While Philippa documents this question about the mis-identification of Douglas Grant (page 50 and page 155), this instance is only one in a multitude of issues, only one face and one name amoung hundreds of WWI Indigenous Diggers who served this nation. The Douglas Grant example is symbolic of the complexities involved in historical research in this area and demonstrates the importance of referenced rolls like that in “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Volunteers for the AIF”.

Just ahead of the Centenary of ANZAC and WWI, Philippa’s work ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Volunteers of the AIF’ provides a wonderful resource for future generations of Australians.

Adding newly discovered soliders to the honour roll, and refining the works of earlier historians, the book represents the most current and comprehensive referenced list of over 800 men of Indigenous heritage who volunteered for service in WWI.

The accompanying notes include comments on locating Indigenous men in service records, reasons for volunteering and the growth of interest in Indigenous service since the 1930s. The discussion of Indigenous involvement in World War One uses the words of Aboriginal soldiers and community members, contemporary non-Indigenous commentators and newspaper reports. There are 84 illustrations, 79 of which are individual and group portraits of Indigenous servicemen.

HOW TO OBTAIN COPIES

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander volunteers for the AIF: the Indigenous response to World War One is published by Indigenous Histories, price $30 plus $10 postage, $20 international postage (Australian Dollars).

For more information contact:

Indigenous Histories
PO 686 Jamison Centre Macquarie
ACT Australia 2614

Email: indigenous.histories@netspeed.com.au; Twitter: @ww1scarett
National Library of Australia Trove: http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/37036090

Other works by Philippa include How Soon They Forget