A broken heart, a cross-country horseback dash, the Western Front, a one man charge on German machine guns, loyalty, unity, and a hero’s legacy left behind - Aboriginal soldier William Allan Irwin's story has it all.
William Allan Irwin DCM was a lot of things. A son, a brother, a shearer, a soldier, a war hero, and an Aboriginal, but above all else he was a proud Australian.
Private Irwin is the only Aboriginal soldier recognised in the official histories of World War I.
Yet his story, the story of an Indigenous man who laid his life down for a country that did not even recognise him as a citizen, on the other side of the world, remains largely untold.
Born in the Pilliga in 1878, and growing up in Coonabarabran, William, along with his father and two brothers were shearers, traveling all over the North West and Southern Queensland, before a jilted romance at the end of 1915 changed the course of Australian history.
Private Irwin’s nephew, 81 year old Tamworth man Merv Allan tells the tale of what drove a 37 year old Indigenous shearer to sign up and fight a war on the other side of the world, and in doing so saved the lives of countless men of the 33rd Australian Infantry Battalion.
“My father, his brother Harry, didn’t like to talk about it much, he was just that sort of man, but my mum (Elsie) used to tell me little bits and pieces,” he said.
“The three brothers were seeing three sisters, the Sampsons. Two of the brothers married the sisters, but when William came back from three months shearing he found that Maggie (Sampson) had married another man.”
William took off and enlisted at Moree on December 30 1915, taking his Uncle’s name of Irwin, before going into camp at Narrabri and then Armidale, eventually landing in Rutherford near Maitland for training with C Company in the 33rd Battalion.
Months later Harry got winds of his brother’s plans and, on horseback, raced from Caroona to Newcastle to try and intercept the departing ship, The Marathon, and stop Private Irwin from heading to the European front.
“The ship left a day early and he missed him, but he heard it was going to stop in Brisbane so he jumped on a train to Brisbane,” Mr Allan said.
The ship never stopped, and Harry would never see his brother again.
Mr Allan’s nephew, and Private Irwin’s great-nephew Peter Milliken has “known the story of William Allan Irwin since the day I was born”.
As a child he was told the story of his uncle the hero countless times, and would spend long afternoons staring at his picture on the wall.
“It is a good story for everyone, all Australians to hear,” Mr Milliken said.
“You talk about mateship – this is mateship – this is exactly what mateship is, and it should be an important lesson for all Australians.”
In November 1916 Private Irwin and the 33rd Battalion left England for France and the front.
They were frequently involved in the fighting, and Private Irwin was wounded several times, including two gunshot wounds, a bayonet wound, and broken ribs, although he quickly returned to his battalion on each occasion.
His records show that twice he was reprimanded and docked 15 days pay for being absent without leave.
“I think that mischief might have always run in the family – and still does,” Mr Milliken said.
In August 1918 the 33rd Battalion was involved in some particularly heavy fighting at a site called Road Wood near Mont St Quentin, where they faced and were pinned down by intense German machine gun fire.
The battalion were issued orders to rush the Maxim MG08 Heavy Machine Guns at dawn the following day.
“The story goes that my Uncle got up in the middle of the night and snuck out – he saved many of those men, his mates, from almost certain death,” Mr Milliken said.
The official records state that “Leaving his battalion and acting alone, William captured the enemy machine-gun posts and their crews, one after another.”
Private Irwin single handedly rushed three machine gun posts, capturing 15 German soldiers in the process, although while rushing the fourth he was wounded by shell fire in his back and thing and died the following day, September 1, 1918.
“Those guns can fire 600 rounds a minute, so he saved the batalion from facing 1800 rounds a minute the next morning – that would have just cut them down,” Mr Milliken said.
“He must have been a very compassionate bloke too, he captured 15 soldiers rather than kill them – that spins me out every time I hear it.”
On the 27th October 1918 WIlliam Allan Irwin was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the first of only four Aboriginal soldiers to ever be honoured with a DCM.
Private George Cartwright was also awarded a Victorian Cross for his actions during the same battle after capturing a remaining machine gun nest.
After the war one of the men from the 33rd Battalion that was there on that night came all the way to Quirindi to find William’s brothers. He offered them 640 acres of land because of what William did,” Mr Milliken said.
“At the time they thought of it as blood money and refused.”
“The War Memorial described it as an “irresistible dash”, but that’s not right. He planned it all, and did what he had to do.
“There is a lot of talk about Aboriginals and white people, but from both sides this shows that mateship does exist. He must have had a lot of respect for the other blokes to get up and do what he did – it had to be mateship.”
Australian War Memorial Indigenous Liaison Officer, and fellow Gomeroi man Michael Bell said that Private Irwin is a pivotal figure in the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers.
“The contribution and sacrifice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women to the 1st and 2nd A.I.F has until recently remained largely unrecognised,” he said.
“William Allen Irwin DCM is a pivotal figure in this recognition as he is the only Aboriginal soldier identified in the official histories of World War 1.
William’s story not only reflects the heroism and courage of the individual but stands as a lone reminder that despite the restriction applied to men of Aboriginal descent, a significant number (1185) of enlistments, of which 807 are known, have served overseas.”
Recently William Allan Irwin DCM has been recognised in the For Country, For Nation display at the Australian War Memorial, while later this year his actions and ultimate sacrifice will be forever memorialised with a headstone in Sydney’s Hyde Park.