Aborigine survives family massacre but dies in war

Name: William Joseph Punch
Date: 1916-1917
Unit: 1st AIF
Location: Europe

An Aborigine who was the sole survivor of a brutal attack in which his entire family was massacred in 1880, was brought up by a white family in country New South Wales and later fought for Australia in World War I.

William Joseph Punch was wounded twice while fighting, first in Belgium and later in France, both times being evacuated to England for treatment, but he eventually died of pneumonia at Mont Dore Hospital in Bournemouth, England.

WJ Punch grew up to be a respected worker, a top sportsman and an accomplished musician before answering the call to sign up in 1915.

In January 1931, Reveille published a list of Aborigines from New South Wales who had served in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). It listed 18 who had been killed or died in the war, 31 who had been wounded or gassed, and 56 others who had taken part.

The paper said the list no doubt contained some omissions but at least emphasised how the Aborigines of New South Wales had rallied to the colours during the Great War.

But according to articles written by Albert Speer MBE in the Goulburn and District Historical Society's newsletter in October 1992 and April 1993, the list failed to mention William Punch.

In his articles Mr Speer said the man attributed with bringing WJ Punch to the area was John Siggs, the eighth child of Richard Siggs and Mary Sullivan. John had grown up at Pejar, where his father and mother had several small land holdings and also operated the old Pejar Inn.

John Siggs rode as a young man to the cattle on agistment from the Pejar, Woodhouselee and Roslyn areas to land surrounding Lake Cowal where the Regans, relatives to the Siggs, had landed interests.

Speer wrote that it was commonly circulated that WJ Punch had been brought back by the Siggs family from North Queensland, but this had been discounted by a story told to him by a lady in her nineties.

She had told him that Siggs, with other people from Roslyn and Woodhouselee, had taken cattle to the Bland. On their arrival at the Bland River one of the beasts had been speared by some Aboriginals and roasted and eaten. A retributory raid had been conducted in the late night.

Young Siggs, who had slept through it all, next morning had ridden over to see the result and had discovered that amongst the dead bodies a small baby was trying to suckle from his dead mother's breast. He had uttered the words,

"Oh, this is bloody murder, I will have no part of this", according to the old lady, and had picked up the baby and had ridden home to Pejar.

"So William Joseph Punch's early life commenced with a supportive and loving family group," Speer wrote. "The reason for the Queensland origins story was, I am sure, to cover up the lad's birthplace so he would not wish to seek out his relatives, as presumably these no longer existed."

Speer wrote that a Mrs Mary Fingleton had revealed that the nephews and nieces of John Siggs had been taught by a lady governess at the old Pejar House and WJ Punch had ridden with the Siggs family to music lessons in Crookwell. He had been a noted musician and a quite well educated man. He also had been a great sportsman and had taken part in local sports committees.

Speer wrote that the Goulburn Evening Penny Post articles on Woodhouselee up until 1915 had recounted stories of WJ Punch's involvement in local activities - sports and musical entertainment and participation in the formation of the Woodhouselee Rifle Club.

"The advent of hostilities on the other side of the world had featured largely in the Press of the day and constant calls had been made for more recruits," Speer wrote. "WJ Punch had answered that call and so on 31.12.1915 he enlisted in the Army. He gave as his next of kin a young member of the Siggs family, Oswald Gallagher. His service number was 5435. He was in camp at Goulburn Showground. He was one of the 300 soldiers honoured at an early Mass and breakfast on 27.2.1916 prior to entraining for Sydney."

Speer wrote that WJ Punch had been referred to as the mascot of the unit and was very popular with the troops. WJ Punch and other soldiers had apparently fallen ill with mumps and had been left behind in Egypt, but had later joined the 1st Battalion.

Speer wrote that WJ Punch had seen action in Belgium and had been wounded on 7 September 1916. He had written to the Siggs-Gallagher family on 3 September 1916 that he had been in England for nine days and that he was going to France. He mentioned gas drill and that he had made friends with a "Bosker bloke" from Clear Hills, Roslyn, NSW and that soon they would be in the front line in Belgium.

He was wounded again in France on 5 April 1917 and was sent back to England where he was nursed in Mont Dore Hospital, Bournemouth and died of pneumonia on 29 August 1917. He is buried in the Bournemouth East Cemetery, Boscombe, in Plot X, Grave No. 185. He was recorded as having been aged 37 and a native of Queensland. Sister O'Shea, an Australian nurse serving at the hospital, wrote to the Reveille on 31 August 1931 about WJ Punch and supplied a photo of him in his hospital bed.

So, the story of William Joseph Punch, which began, reportedly, with gunfire in a creek-bed, tragically ended with gunfire in 1917 in the Great War.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Aborigine survives family massacre but dies in war, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 18 May 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/australians-wartime/aborigine-survives-family-massacre-dies-war
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