Private William Reginald Rawlings
KIA 9 August 1918
Story delivered 2 June 2014
Today we remember and pay tribute to Private William Reginald Rawlings of the 29th Battalion. In honour of the great tradition of Indigenous military service to Australia, we tell his story.
Bill Rawlings was born in Purnim, Victoria, the only son of William Rawlings and his wife, Elizabeth. On the outbreak of the First World War Bill was a horse-breaker in and around the Framlingham Aboriginal Reserve in western Victoria.
Although Aboriginal men were officially prohibited from enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force, Bill Rawlings applied for, and was accepted into, the AIF in March 1916. In August he left Australia for France with the 8th Training Battalion, and in December was transferred to the 29th Battalion.
Rawlings’ health suffered in his first year in France. He had such serious problems with trench foot that he was eventually evacuated to England to recover. He rejoined his unit later in 1917 and went on to serve with distinction. In late July the following year the 29th Battalion was involved in the successful advance along Morlancourt Ridge. Here Rawlings was part of a bombing team which attacked a communications trench, ejecting the enemy and successfully defending the new post. He was cited for setting “a wonderful example to the remainder of [his] team” with his “irresistible dash and courage”, and was awarded the Military Medal.
In early August the 29th Battalion was involved in the capture of Vauvillers in France. Rawlings left the trench with his battalion and started out on the advance, but about 200 metres from the starting point he was hit by a shell and was killed immediately. He was 27.
It is often assumed that Indigenous Australian soldiers had to hide their identity for their entire service because, as Indigenous men, they were not allowed to enlist. Bill’s mates doubtless knew that he was Indigenous; those who made reports about his death certainly knew it, but they made no further comment on this beyond describing him as such for identification purposes. An old soldier later recalled that “The AIF judged a man not by his colour, but by his worth.” Bill Rawlings set a fine example of leadership and courage in the field, and was sadly missed after his death.
His name is listed on the Roll of Honour on my right, along with more than 60,000 others from the First World War, and his photograph is displayed today beside the Pool of Reflection.
This is one of the many stories of courage and sacrifice told here at the Australian War Memorial. We now remember Private William Reginald Rawlings, and all of those Australians who have given their lives in service of our nation.