William Rawlings

Private Rawlings, c. 1916. P01695.001

William Reginald Rawlings, known as Bill, was born in Purnim, Victoria, the only son of William and Elizabeth Rawlings. On the outbreak of the First World War, the Gunditjmara man was working as 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  was accepted in March 1916. In August he left Australia with the 8th Training Battalion, and was transferred to the 29th Battalion in December of that year.

Bill's health suffered during his first year in France. He had serious problems with trench foot and was eventually evacuated to England to recover. In late 1917 he rejoined his unit and went on to serve with distinction. In late July 1918, the 29th Battalion took part in the advance along Morlancourt Ridge. Bill was part of a bombing team that attacked a communication trench and successfully forced out the enemy. Bill was commended for setting "a wonderful example to the remainder of [his] team" with his "irresistible dash and courage", and was awarded the Military Medal.

On 9 August the 29th Battalion was involved in the capture of Vauvillers in France. Bill left the trench with his battalion and started out on the advance, but he was hit by a shell about 200 metres from the starting point and killed instantly. He was 27. Bill was buried in the Heath Cemetery in France, alongside his friend and fellow Indigenous soldier, Corporal Harry Thorpe, another Military Medal recipient who was killed on the same day.

Bill’s service records describe his complexion as dark, with black curly hair. Under distinctive marks, “Half-caste Aboriginal” is written. It is likely that his mates knew he was an Aboriginal man, as the men who made reports about his death certainly knew it. They made no further comment on his Aboriginality beyond describing it for identification purposes. An old soldier later recalled, "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.



National Archives of Australia, service records, William Reginald Rawlings, B2455:
https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=4817818 <accessed 12 February 2020>.
The Australian War Memorial, Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of Private William Reginald Rawlings, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1376739 <accessed 12 February 2020>.