When I mentioned we were moving our head office from Garden Island navy base to Olympic Park Andy told me his brother had worked on Garden Island. Over a coffee I told Andy about my about my WWI centenary project and then he told me an extraordinary story. This is that story.
Some 20 years earlier, while at an elderly customer’s home in Eastwood to convert his old cooker to natural gas, Andy saw a WWI framed certificate in the hallway. As Andy had an interest in military history he asked the old man about it. Afterwards Andy was invited to stay for a cuppa. Sensing the elderly gentleman was lonely Andy agreed, even though company policy forbade it. The old man was a WWI veteran and had been keeping a secret from the war all his life, and now that he was in his last years, felt the need to unburden to someone and share his secret before going to his grave.
Andy couldn’t remember the old man’s name so let’s call him Private X.
“X” had been stationed in Belgium with his AIF battalion towards the end of WWI. He told Andy that a young Belgian boy had taken to visiting the Australian soldiers’ camp because he liked their horses. The boy was quite young, only about six years old. One day after going home to his village the nameless boy returned to the soldiers in a very distressed state. His village was gone. He couldn’t find his home. The entire village had been blown up by the Germans!
Being in a war zone, and not knowing what to do with the boy, they kept him in their camp and fed him and taught him to help look after the horses. With his whole family gone, and knowing he would likely end up in some orphanage, the young soldiers really felt for the boy and didn’t want to abandon him to such a terrible fate. Knowing they were doing the wrong thing, when orders came from above to break camp the young Aussies dressed the boy in cast off uniforms and smuggled him onto a ship home to Australia in one of their canvas haversacks.
On the long voyage home the young soldiers vied for the right to take the boy to their home and raise him as their own child by tossing coins, heads or tails. All the diggers wanted the boy but in the end he went home with a soldier from Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. All of them vowed never to tell as they knew they would have been severely reprimanded or possibly even court martialled for their actions.
Andy said the old man was so relieved to finally tell someone, and that he could now rest peacefully knowing the story was off his chest. Given that Kalgoorlie in the early 20th century was probably not a huge town, it would be fascinating to try and find out the name of the soldier who raised the young boy. Given the scale of human tragedy in WWI it seems there was a good outcome for one young Belgian boy!
Andy’s own grandfather, Thomas Hamilton Brown, also served in WWI. He enlisted as an 18 year old in 1918 and served in Belgium. Andy’s mother always told him that his grandfather dug lots of holes. Andy remembers that his grandfather never talked very much and died in 1969. While researching his grandfather’s service record he discovered that young Thomas was in the Graves Regiment and had the grisly task of digging graves for all the dead on the Western Front in Belgium.
Andy is Treasurer of the Maltese ex-Servicemen’s Association of NSW and is working on research into the history of 53 Maltese Anzacs who migrated to Australia and then served in WWI.