Repatriation of Australians in World War I

The process by which Australian soldiers returned home to Australia was called repatriation. It occurred both during and at the end of World War I. One aspect of repatriation was the creation of the Repatriation Department, which still operates today as the Australian Government Department of Veterans' Affairs.

Repatriation during the war

Service men and women of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) were being repatriated throughout the war. By the time the Armistice was signed in November 1918, some 93,000 personnel were already back home in Australia. Almost 75,000 of the men had been deemed 'unfit for service'.

The first of the Gallipoli wounded to be repatriated docked in Melbourne on 18 July 1915.

Read how a Melbourne newspaper reported the return of those Australian soldiers:

Situation after the Armistice

When the fighting ended on 11 November 1918, the AIF was deployed in three main areas:

  • some 95,000 men were in France
  • some 6000 were in hospitals, convalescing, in reinforcement depots or working on the staff in the United Kingdom
  • some 30,000 were in the Middle East or other theatres of war

Most soldiers on overseas service wanted to return home as quickly as possible. Many in authority understood the soldiers' desire to get home and favoured repatriation based on the length of a man's service known informally as a 'first to come, first to go' system [Bean, vol. VI, p.1058].

After some deliberation, the Prime Minister decided that the criteria for returning men to Australia would be based on length of service, family responsibilities and 'assured employment'. Men who were 'pivotal' to industry or commerce would be given priority. (Repatriation Policy is discussed later.)

Thousands of Australians had married English women, which necessitated the provision of transport for soldiers' wives and in come cases their children.

Billets before repatriation

Two men feeding chickens
Private J Brown (left) helps the owner of a billet to feed the fowls at Flesselles, December 1916

Immediately after the Armistice, the men on the Western Front remained in their billets. Often these were barns and other farm buildings but sometimes, particularly for officers, they stayed in the homes of local civilians.

Over the following weeks and months, drafts of men sailed for England, where many stayed in barracks at the Australian camps on Salisbury Plain. The last 10,000 Australians left France in May 1919 and billeted at these depot camps.

Education and vocational training

To keep the soldiers busy now that the fighting was over, the AIF offered vocational training and other educative opportunities. Shortly after the war ended, Lieutenant General Sir John Monash told the AIF's leaders that their men, to quote Charles Bean's summary:

in whom during the war they had successfully implanted and encouraged a "fighting morale," must now be instilled with a “reconstruction morale.” They must be given a vision of the needs of Australia in the future days of peace, so that each one would be keen to reinstall himself as a useful member of his nation.

[Bean, vol. VI, p.1057]

Bean sought to achieve this through the AIF Education Scheme (discussed later).

Waiting for repatriation

Soldiers were entertained with sports and concerts, as had been the case during the war. Many worked in an administrative capacity and were thus busy with their regular duties while they waited to go home. Soldiers were also given 14 days leave before embarkation. Many of them took the opportunity to explore Britain.

As time passed and fewer and fewer Australians remained in England, one man wrote of their absence, and in so doing indicated what many Australians did with their time while awaiting repatriation:

No longer will the "inevitable" Australian be found haunting every function, every scientific, literary or musical gathering, every sports meeting, every popular place of call in the United Kingdom.

[Lloyd and Rees, The Last Shilling, p.123]

Eventually battalions were merged and then disbanded as more and more of their number returned home.

Logistical issues for Australian Government

The return of soldiers created problems for the Australian Government that were never fully rectified. The main issues were:

  • lack of suitable ships to transport personnel home
  • special care needs of sick and wounded personnel
  • lack of trained personnel to care for them

The establishment of the Repatriation Department in 1918 began to help solve these issues after the Armistice.

Vessels for transports and hospital ships

During the war, Australia:

  • operated two dedicated hospital ships that served between the theatres of war and Australia
  • used requisitioned transports called 'black ships' or 'invalid carriers' to repatriate wounded soldiers

The transports were not accorded the same protection as hospital ships under the terms of the first Geneva Convention of 1864. Ships carrying war material or combatants were considered legitimate wartime targets. Clearly marked hospital ships were meant to be protected and not fired on.

Service men and women being repatriated to Australia were categorised as either:

  1. a cot case (with illness or injuries that required constant medical attention)
  2. in need of some form of segregation due to some condition, from contagious disease to some forms of mental illness
  3. due to return to Australia due to the so-called 6-months policy (still not 'fit for duty' 6 months after being wounded)
  4. in a condition that differed little from 'fit for duty' troops

Cot cases tended to be transported in a hospital ship, in a cot. The others mainly travelled home on the 'black ships', sleeping on hammocks or double-tiered berths.

The main purpose of all ships except hospital ships was as transports, although in a specialised role, not treatment.

On hospital ships, the quality of conditions and equipment onboard ship tended to mirror those on land. In 1916, a Sergeant Masseur was added to the Australian Army Medical Corps staff on hospital ships to help with therapeutic massages.

Care of returned soldiers

A row of soldiers in wheelchairs or with a walking stick
Patients outside No. 2 Australian Auxiliary Hospital, which specialised in fitting artificial limbs, London, 22 May 1919. AWM D00539

Once back in Australia, one critical challenge was who should help care for returned soldiers and provide their aftercare.

Early in the war, care was left to voluntary patriotic organisations. They sought to raise money at the local level to support returned soldiers. By late 1915, many leaders realised that some form of government regulation was required.

The Federal Parliamentary War Committee recommended the formation of state war councils and war service committees. Their main roles were to:

  • provide artificial limbs and vocational training to returned soldiers
  • find jobs for those able to work
  • register men who wanted to settle 'on the land'
  • collect funds for their work
  • form local committees to manage their work

One of the critical challenges that the state war councils faced was a lack of funds.

In February 1916, on the suggestion of former Prime Minister, Chris Watson, the government decided to create the Australian Soldiers' Repatriation Fund. In May 1916, it passed the Australian Soldiers' Repatriation Fund Act 1917. Establishing the fund was an important step in the government's control of the repatriation process in Australia.

A newspaper report about the Australian Soldiers' Repatriation Fund, 1916 'FEDERAL PARLIAMENTARY WAR COMMITTEE.', detailed the local fundraising element of the of Australia's repatriation effort:

The fund has a claim upon every member of the community. The spirit of sacrifice which animates our soldiers should be shared by one and all of us. We cannot all take up arms and enter the fight line but we can all make some personal sacrifice to show our gratitude to the men who bore the heat and burden of the fight, to help alleviate their sufferings, and to give them a chance of starting life afresh.

While passing the Act was necessary, effective centralised control was still lacking. By early 1917, those parties involved agreed on greater centralised control.

In April 1917, Senator Edward Millen became responsible for repatriation. In July, Millen brought forward a bill to replace the Soldiers' Repatriation Fund by a central body with greater control. Millen defined repatriation as:

[a]n organised effort on the part of the community to look after those who have suffered either from wounds or illness as the result of the war and who stand in need of such care and attention. We mean that there should be a sympathetic effort to reinstate in civil life all those who are capable of such reinstatement.

This echoed the views of Prime Minister Billy Hughes who had stated early in 1917 that:

We say that the care of the returned soldier is one of the functions of the Commonwealth Government. Our soldiers fight not for Queensland, New South Wales, or Tasmania, but for Australia. They are enlisted under the Commonwealth banner. They go out to fight our battles. We say to them: 'When you come back we will look after you' […] The soldiers will say to the Commonwealth Government: 'You made us a promise. We look to you to carry it out'.

Millen's bill passed and became the Australian Soldiers' Repatriation Act 1917. The Act:

  • repealed the Australian Soldiers' Repatriation Fund Act
  • established the Repatriation Commission, with Millen as Minister for Repatriation

The Commission had seven members. While the Act was significant, it did not establish a policy for repatriation. Instead, it allowed for the creation of the Repatriation Department in 1918. The department was established to:

  • secure the re-establishment of returned soldiers in the industrial life of the community to the fullest extent that circumstances permit
  • sustain these soldiers until an opportunity for such re-establishment is assured
  • provide for the care of the dependants of soldiers who have died on active service, as well as the dependants of soldiers who, on account of injuries sustained, are unable to provide for those formerly dependent upon them

The Repatriation Department was still in the process of developing firm policies on repatriation. This affected organisations in Europe trying to manage the repatriation of the AIF.

Eventually the department became responsible for the management of:

  • war pensions
  • soldier settlement schemes

The settlement schemes were established in each state to help returned service men and women to take up farm land and the benefits of rural living. The schemes mostly failed due to:

  • mismanagement of many more applications than land parcels
  • land parcels too small to be viable farms, often with poor soil
  • drought conditions
  • post-war inflation and low prices for farm produce
  • veterans with little or no farming experience

Repatriation Policy of the Australian Imperial Force

The Australian Government was slow to develop an effective policy for the repatriation of the AIF. Discussion began in December 1916 but details weren't finalised until the end of the war in 1918.

Defining roles in the process

Confusingly, both the Repatriation Department and the AIF shared the term 'repatriation' in the names of their administrative bodies:

  • the Repatriation Department in Australia
  • the Demobilisation and Repatriation Branch of the AIF in the United Kingdom (UK)

At the end of World War I, the repatriation process consisted of:

  1. repatriation – bringing home the AIF
  2. demobilisation – the reduction of the military to peacetime strength
  3. reinstatement – the process of reinstating Australian personnel back into civilian life

It was this third element that was the responsibility of the Repatriation Department, not the first.

Given this confusion, the Repatriation Department had concerns that the Demobilisation and Repatriation Branch would interfere with its work.

Planning for repatriation and demobilisation

Another problem in developing a repatriation policy was the government's lack of coherent thinking. Until the AIF knew the government's policy for reinstatement and rehabilitation, it could not adequately plan for repatriation or demobilisation.

The AIF received details of the government's rehabilitation scheme on Armistice Day (11 November 1918).

Billy Hughes, who was in London at the time, took a hands-on approach to the problem of demobilisation.

On 16 November 1918, the Demobilisation and Repatriation Branch of the AIF was established and led by Major-General Sir Cyril Brudenell White.

After Hughes consulted White and Lieutenant General Monash, Monash was appointed Director-General of Repatriation and Demobilisation on 21 November 1918. This brought a renewed effort to the process.

Monash estimated that he had to repatriate 180,000 service men and women and around 7000 of their dependants. In doing this, Monash faced two challenges:

  • maintaining morale while the repatriation process was undertaken
  • determining what was to be the policy for repatriation

Monash planned to infuse the troops with a 'reconstruction morale'. He wanted them to understand both:

  • the process of repatriation and demobilisation
  • the needs of the country to which they were returning

Key to this vision was the AIF Educational Scheme.

Selecting troops for repatriation quotas

As for how the troops would be returned, several challenges existed.

Initially, the Australian Government wanted military units to be returned as regiments. It was clear that the feeling amongst troops was for them to return on a 'first in, first out' basis. Hughes viewed the length of service as the key criterion.

By late December 1918, Monash urged that the criteria for demobilisation were to be:

  1. length of service
  2. family responsibilities
  3. assured employment

Those who had served on Gallipoli would go home first. This was agreed in principle, with some conditions to give flexibility. For example, some men not meeting the three criteria could be returned earlier if they were 'pivotal' to the needs of Australian industry.

With the policy agreed on, Monash developed the process by which troops were sent home. He issued a pamphlet, Demobilisation of the A.I.F. : things which Australian soldiers ought to know, also titled 'Demobilization procedure in Australia'.

AIF Divisions created quotas of 1000 men who met the three criteria and organised them as 'battalions' to be shipped home at the right time. The battalions were roughly the right size for transportation on trains and ships.

A bar graph chart
Graph of demobilisation progress for the 1st Division, Demobilisation and Repatriation Department, March 1919 AWM J00092H

To maintain morale amongst the troops, quotas typically included:

  • a brass band
  • some recreation and education staff

As ships appeared on the docks, quotas were ordered to fill them. Then the ships returned to Australia.

Group photo of soldiers holding musical instruments
Group portrait of the band of the 9th Battalion at Roux, Belgium, 16 January 1919 AWM E04154

The AIF Educational Scheme

A lecture hall with student soldiers facing a teacher
AIF students attending a lecture at the Faculty of Science in Agriculture, Edinburgh University, under the AIF Educational Scheme AWM D00752

Informal schemes through organisations such as the Young Men's Christian Association existed, but Australia was slow to recognise the need for an effective formal education scheme for its returned soldiers.

In 1917, for example, the Canadians established the 'Khaki College' and the 'University of Vimy Ridge' as part of their efforts to educate and rehabilitate their soldiers. These quickly became an example to the Australians.

In February 1918, the Official War Correspondent, Charles Bean, reported on the Canadian experience, which gained the interest of White.

The idea also gained the support of the General Officer Commanding the AIF, General Sir William Birdwood. Birdwood and White saw education as a way to keep troops occupied between the end of the war and their return home.

White appointed Bishop George Long as Director of Education in May 1918. In this role, Long developed a scheme that could be implemented. Long viewed the scheme as a means of not only keeping Australian soldiers occupied but also 'of making Australian citizens'.

Long's scheme envisioned three forms of education - professional, technical and general. As outlined by Birdwood in June 1918, the scheme sought to:

Give to those men who have already set out in a profession, trade or occupation, the opportunity of resuming their studies and apprenticeships.

Give to those men who have no definite profession, trade or occupation the chance of selecting one and undergoing preliminary training.

Give to all men of the Force what may be called an inspirational training by means of lectures, classes and courses, and such other steps as will enable them to consider and discuss topics of the day, and all that goes to make up good citizenship.

Long's scheme had some challenges. Apart from practical issues, such as generating support from British industry, the critical challenge was the lack of cooperation from the Repatriation Department in Australia.

While Long developed his plans, some forms of education had developed on an ad hoc basis amongst AIF units.

For example, from July 1918 onwards, the 8th Field Ambulance ran an education scheme for its members. Classes in English, French, Mathematics, book-keeping and short hand were taught by members of the unit. In some subjects, demand was so high that the classes had to be divided into elementary and advanced. Look at the syllabus and timetable.

Birdwood recommended that the Commanding Officer's report be distributed to all units as a model from which to work.

By October, Long issued a prospectus to troops that covered the aims of the scheme. The prospectus stated that:

The one chief aim of this organization is to help each individual soldier in mind, character and occupation and through doing so to help the future of Australia after the war.

To enable his scheme to work, Long required trained Education Officers. Recruitment of suitable staff began in September 1918. Their role was to:

  1. Act as a representative of the AIF Education Service in his unit
  2. Enlist the 'volunteer' cooperation of men within the unit capable of conducting courses of instruction
  3. Organise and coordinate all available means of instruction
  4. Obtain through AIF Education Service all text books &c. required by the men
  5. Obtain information enabling men to decide upon their careers after the war and thus to be the advance agent of the Australian Repatriation scheme

In October 1918, the AIF Education Service Training School was opened as Cheshunt College in Cambridge, UK. This school aimed to:

  • Afford all prospective Education Officers as wide a training as possible in the administrative duties of Education Officers.
  • Imbue these officers with a full appreciation of the spirit of the Education Service, its aims and methods.
  • Draw up syllabuses of study in all subjects coming within the legitimate field of activity of the Education Service; fix examination standards; and decide on text and reference books to be used.
  • Reawaken, by lecture on matters of national importance by recognised experts, a keen intellectual appreciation of the problems of the day.

While the Education Service was being created, the Armistice was declared. Long's department was ill-prepared for peace.

For example, Long had planned to distribute a questionnaire to all soldiers seeking their preference on which form of education they wished to undertake. Without this information, it was difficult for Long's department to effectively place people within the scheme.

Added to this were the views of Billy Hughes. Hughes felt that the technical aspect of the scheme did not go far enough. Long had faced the challenge of negotiating with British industry concerning placements. He had decided not to seek paid employment for Australian soldiers. This was unacceptable to Hughes.

Eventually, a compromise was reached. A branch was created within Monash's staff to deal with 'non-military employment'. Led by Colonel Julius Bruche, the Non-Military Employment Branch had:

  • 'learners' managed by Long
  • 'employees' managed by Lieutenant Reginald (RJ) Burchell

The new Non-Military Employment scheme was launched on 19 December 1918.

Before the AIF left France, Australians were given the use of French and Belgian educational facilities. A military training school in northern France became home to the Australian Corps Education School. In May 1919 the entire school was moved to Salisbury Plain.

In other areas of education, soldiers in England were either taught within the AIF or were sent out to British universities, commercial or industrial schools, or industrial concerns.

Repatriation experience of the 9th Battalion

It's interesting to consider what happened to the service personnel in units while repatriation was underway.

The 9th Battalion had been raised in Queensland and had seen service with the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division throughout the war.

In December 1918, the battalion, along with the rest of the 1st Division moved into positions in Belgium.

Between the end of the war and the end of March 1919, when the 9th Battalion completely ceased to exist, the unit balanced the necessity of preparing for repatriation while also maintaining military discipline.

As the battalion's war diary noted on 7 January 1919, military training aimed to:

[k]eep the spirit (which has so long been instrumental in maintaining the reputation of the Unit) of regimentality.

Education classes

This necessity of military training also had to be balanced with the education classes. The organisation of courses began on 4 December 1918. By 12 December, they were in 'full swing'. While it's clear that challenges existed within the education system, the 9th Battalion's war diary suggested that for this unit at least, the scheme was well received.

On 8 January 1919, it was recorded that the classes were:

[w]ell attended and the system inaugurated at the latter end of December [1918] has fully proved its soundness.

While the scheme was generally praised, there were attempts to diversify what was on offer at the battalion level in February 1919. This was introduced to help those who had not signed up to the formal scheme itself. This comprised of platoon commanders discussing with their men what work they had previously undertaken in civilian life.

Sport and entertainment

A group photo of men in sports uniform
Members of the 1st grade football team of the 9th Battalion at Chatelet, Belgium, 24 January 1919 AWM E04227

As well as education, recreation continued. It consisted of regular sports matches both within the 9th Battalion, against other units and against the Belgians. On 19 January 1919, the battalion won 2-0 in a football match against the Belgians representing the Charleroi region.

Entertainment consisted of using local and regimental facilities. Soldiers regularly frequented the local cinemas while divisional and brigade concert parties helped 'to amuse and help all ranks to pass away the time between Retreat and Lights Out'.

The key concern for most troops was when would they get home to Australia. For the 9th Battalion, repatriation began in late January 1919.

On 29 January, the first draft from the battalion began its move to Le Havre in France, then to the UK, and eventually to Australia. This draft, which formed one of Monash’s 'quotas', consisted of those soldiers who joined in 1915.

As the battalion's war diary recalled:

[t]he balance of the Battalion lined GRAND RUE to give [the draft] a farewell cheer. The Regimental Band followed by the Battalion Standard Bearer played them as far as Brigade Headquarters. It was a sad farewell to all who ken their worth, but it is considered that Australia will be better for the return of such fine manhood.

Amalgamation of units

Repatriation also led to significant changes in the composition of the 9th Battalion.

After the first draft left, on 4 February, the 9th Battalion received notification that it was to be amalgamated with the 10th Battalion of the 3rd Brigade.

The need to amalgamate was an outgrowth of Monash’s decision not to repatriate units as whole entities. As such, the 9th and 10th Battalions became the 910th Battalion on 5 February 1919. Two sub-battalions, 'A' (9th) and 'B' (10th), were created to carry on the traditions of each battalion.

In late-February, preparations began for the dispatch of the next draft for repatriation to Australia. The dispatch of further drafts during March further reduced the strength of the 910th Battalion.

By the end of March, this battalion was merged with the amalgamated battalion of the 11th and 12th Battalions to form the 3rd Australian Infantry Brigade Group.

Finally, by the end of May, this unit ceased to exist.

Wives and children

Women and young children gathered on the deck of a ship.

On board a ‘family ship’, the Borda, bound for Australia, December 1919. More than 10,000 Australian soldiers had married in Britain, and many returned accompanied by wives and young children. AWM D00935

During World War I, some Australian troops met and married local women in the places where they had served. By the time they were repatriated, some also had children and pregnant wives.

As such, the Australian Government organised for around 20,000 women and children to be repatriated to Australia. This included those married or engaged to Australian soldiers, as well as dependants of munition workers who had come to the UK to work during the war.

Marriage to non-Australian women caused discussion amongst the troops in Europe and back home in Australia. For example, around 20 soldiers of the 1st Australian Division married Belgians after the Armistice. As entertainment, the 7th Battalion held a debate on whether Australian soldiers should marry Belgian women.

Divorce and the law

Even before leaving the UK, some marriages broke down and the couples wanted to divorce.

However, Australians who married in the UK couldn't seek a divorce there because they weren't legal residents. So the British Government passed the Matrimonial Causes (Dominion Troops) Act in 1919, which let dominion troops divorce in the UK.

A reciprocal law, the Matrimonial Causes (Expeditionary Forces) Act 1919, was passed in Australia to let British courts to deal with such divorces.

Wives and fiancées arriving in Australia

Another issue confronting the wives of Australian soldiers was the problem of bigamy.

Many Australian soldiers who married in the UK were already married. This often led to so-called 'English brides' being abandoned once they arrived in Australia. It was difficult to prosecute the men involved because the marriage took places in the UK. The issue continued to vex the Repatriation Department for many years.

Some initial thinking had been to send dependants home first. However, when dependants were sent home independently of spouses, this meant that British women and children were in an unfamiliar country until their husbands arrived. As such, attempts were made to send families together on 'family ships'.

Some problems existed especially for those sent home on 'wives' boats'. While provided with nurses, there weren't enough midwives available for journeys, which caused problems for pregnant women.

Another critical issue was the emergence of so-called 'domain girls'. Some wives or fiancées arrived in Australia separate from their partners. This created a problem when Repatriation Department couldn't trace the husband or fiancé.

Homeward journey

The first transport with Australian service men and women returning home, HMT Port Hacking, embarked from the UK on 3 December 1918. The last transport HMT Port Sydney docked in Fremantle on 22 September 1919. Between these two voyages, 135,000 troops were transported to Australia from Britain in 147 shipments.

Another repatriation operation moved 16,773 troops from the Middle East in 56 shipments.

The journey to Australia lasted around 2 months.

One such journey was that of HMT Norman, which left the UK at the start of July 1919 and arrived at its final destination, Sydney, on 20 August 1919. HMT Norman was fitted out to carry 841 personnel split between:

  • first class - 75 officers, six nurses and an 'imperial' allotment of 55
  • second class - 101 Warrant Officers and Sergeants
  • third class - 608 other ranks

Unlike most transports to Europe during the war, the repatriation transports had a general and isolation hospital located on the poop deck. They were also 'dry', with no consumption of alcohol permitted for all onboard.

Apart from the ship's Captain who was responsible for his crew, each ship also had an Officer Commanding Troops who was:

Actually and Morally, personally responsible for everything connected with the voyage so as concerns the troops committed to his charge.

Each Officer Commanding Troops was given a set of instructions for the voyage that covered issues such as embarkation, the voyage and disembarkation in Australia.

Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Annand commanded the troops onboard HMT Norman. Annand was born in Toowoomba, Queensland. He had commanded the 2nd Pioneer Battalion during the war.

Portrait of solider in uniform and hat
Portrait of Colonel Frederick Annand

Perhaps Annand's most crucial issues were to maintain:

  • the morale amongst those under his command
  • onboard discipline

Monash took a personal interest in the voyage of every ship back to Australia. He distributed a letter to every Officer Commanding Troops in which he outlined what he thought were the challenges associated with the voyage. Importantly, he asked every Officer Commanding Troops to send him regular updates when possible, so he knew how 'you and all the lads ha[d] fared'.

The provision of activities onboard ship was central to tackle those challenges.

Officer Commanding Troops were helped by the generous donations made by organisations such as the YMCA and the Australian Comfort Fund. For example, the Australian Comfort Fund provided around 125,000 cigarettes to be distributed amongst the returning troops.

Games and entertainment were also important. For example, 10 sets of boxing gloves were placed onboard. Concerts were held. The "Norman" News, the ship’s newspaper, was published.

Henri Hermene Tovell's story

One of the most touching stories to come out of the repatriation process was that of a young French orphan, Henri Hermene. The Daily Mail newspaper in Brisbane described it as 'one of the most extraordinary incidents of the war'.

Tovell was about 11 years old when he was smuggled back to Australia with 4th Squadron, Australian Flying Corps. He had become associated with the squadron in late December 1918 when the unit was stationed near Cologne in Germany.

On Christmas Day, Henri wandered into the 4th Squadron mess. After enjoying a meal, he decided that 'the Diggers will do me'. He eventually received a uniform and became the squadron's mascot.

Tim Tovell, an air mechanic with 4th Squadron, looked after Henri, who was nicknamed 'Digger'. When the squadron began to prepare for repatriation, then men decided to take him to the UK. 4th Squadron embarked at Le Havre on 11 March 1919, and Henri was smuggled onboard the transport to the UK in an oat bag. When the squadron arrived in Southampton, Henri spent several hours on the wharf waiting to be collected.

Soldier holding sack with a boy in it
Private Tim Tovell of No 4 Squadron showing how the orphan boy mascot 'Digger', Henri Heremene, was smuggled to England. AWM A03056

When the Australian Flying Corps was repatriated in May 1919 onboard HMT Kaiser-i-Hind, Tovell decided to bring Henri back to Australia. At some point, Tovell wrote to his wife in Brisbane announcing his intention to adopt Henri. He had told his wife that one 'more in the family will not matter'. Tovell was unaware at this time that his eldest son had recently died.

The men devised another way to smuggle Henri because there was no reason for carrying an oat bag onto the ship. Instead, they placed Henri in a basket described as sporting material. He stayed in this basket for 3 days until being revealed to the crew.

There was now little to stop Henri arriving in Australia apart from some form of official recognition. During the journey home, the Minister for State and Home Affairs informed the Premier of Queensland, Tom (TJ) Ryan, that Henri would be able to land in Australia. Queensland was Tovell's home state, and Ryan was travelling back to Australia on the RMS Kaiser-i-Hind after a visit to the UK.

Once back in Brisbane, Henri went to school at St Mary's Church of England School at Kangaroo Point. He eventually decided that given his experience with the Australian Flying Corps that he wished to join the fledgeling Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). However, Henri's status as a French citizen proved problematic. French authorities objected to his enlistment in the RAAF.

This led to Henri being offered employment as a Junior Civilian Assistant in the office of the Secretary to the Air Board in Melbourne. Henri began work temporarily in July 1923. Given Henri's young age in 1923, he was well looked after by the RAAF. He lived with an officer, Pilot Officer HA Wilson, and commuted to work in Melbourne. By 1926, Henri was allowed to learn a trade with the RAAF although he was still a civilian.

It appeared that once he became a naturalised Australian citizen, Henri planned to join the RAAF. However, on 24 May 1928, Henri died of injuries when his motorcycle was hit by a car. Former members of 4th Squadron Australian Flying Corps established a fund to pay for a memorial for Henri.

Read Restoration of the grave of Henri Hermene.


Last updated: 23 July 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Repatriation of Australians in World War I, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/politics/repatriation
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