William Irwin

Private William (Bill) Allan Irwin, c. 1916. AWM2017.995.1.1

Gomeroi man William Allan Irwin was born in 1878, on Burra Bee Dee Aboriginal Mission, near Coonabarabran in New South Wales. After his parents separated, he moved to Moree with his mother, Eliza Allen. William, known to his family as Bill, worked as a shearer after leaving school. He and his brothers Harry and Jack found work on farms across northern New South Wales and southern Queensland.

After discovering that his fiancé had married another man while he was away shearing, William decided to join the Australian Imperial Force. He enlisted in January 1916, aged 37. His brother Harry tried to stop William from going, racing through the countryside on horseback to find him before embarkation. Harry was too late though, as William had already boarded the transport ship Marathon with the 33rd battalion, leaving Sydney on 4 May.

William trained in England for several months before travelling to France to endure the terrible winter of 1916 and 1917. He saw action across various battlefields on the Western Front, including Messines, Villers-Bretonneux, and Amiens. His service records state that he received a gunshot wound in August 1917, and was wounded again in April 1918. After both these instances he was evacuated to England for treatment, before returning to his battalion.

In August 1918, William’s company was involved in intense fighting near Mont St Quentin. The battalion was trying to get control of German-held positions at Road Wood, where they faced intense German machine-gun fire. William’s colleague, Private George Cartwright, charged one of the machine-guns, capturing it along with nine prisoners. William then captured three enemy machine-gun posts and their crews, one after another. When he tried to capture a fourth, he was severely wounded in his back and thigh. He died the next day, on 1 September 1918.

Charles Webster Gilbert, Arlo Mountford, and Louis McCubbin, Mont St Quentin (1920 – 1923, diorama, 340 x 850 x 530 cm) AWM ART41018

William's bravery during the battle of Mont St Quentin was officially recognised with the posthumous award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal. George Cartwright was awarded the Victoria Cross.

William Allan Irwin was buried in the Daours Communal Cemetery in France. He was the only Aboriginal soldier identified by Charles Bean in the Official History of Australia in the First World War.

 

 

References

Claire Hunter, “Remembering William Allan Irwin”, 2018, https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/william-allan-irwin <accessed 12 February 2020>
National Archives of Australia, service records, “William Allan Irwin”, B2455: https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=7360074&S=1 <accessed 12 February 2020>.
The Australian War Memorial, Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of Private William Allan Irwin DCM, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C2610760 <accessed 6 February 2020>.