William Joseph Punch

William Joseph Punch, a station hand from Queensland, enlisted in the AIF in Goulburn, New South Wales, on 31 December 1915. Unlike earlier volunteers, he was not subjected to the latent resistance against non-white Australians enlisting in the AIF. William had received basic formal education and at the age of 36 was said to have been an accomplished musician. His enlistment application listed “labourer” as his occupation and his skin colour was identified as “black”.

During his first few months of service, Punch was twice punished with fines for being absent without leave. Nevertheless, he embarked for the training camps in England in April 1916 aboard the troopship HMAT Ceramic with the 17th reinforcements for the 1st Battalion. On arriving he transferred to the 53rd Battalion.

Punch joined the 53rd at the front in northern France on 7 September, 1916. Just two days later he was wounded in action for the first time. After receiving treatment, Punch was transferred back to the 1st Battalion, where he spent a bitterly cold winter in the trenches. In November he lost his main defence against the cold – his greatcoat – for which he was admonished and fined. A few weeks later, Punch had to be evacuated to hospital suffering from trench foot, a painfully debilitating condition caused by immersion in freezing mud and water for extended periods. 

Having recovered, Punch returned to the front where, in April 1917, he was wounded once more, this time suffering a serious gunshot wound to the buttock. He was evacuated to England and admitted to a military hospital in Bournemouth, where his condition deteriorated. Within days he was being treated for pleurisy, which soon developed into pneumonia and endocarditis. 

Punch succumbed to his illness and died on 29 August 1917. He was accorded a full military funeral. Wreaths were sent from his Australian friends and a firing party was supplied by the New Zealand Engineers. Private Punch was buried in Bournemouth East Cemetery, England.

Activities for research and discussion

1. Research Australian policies on enlistment during the First World War. What did the 1916 policy stipulate about enlistment for Indigenous Australians? Why do you think this policy existed? Why did it change over time?

2. Imagine you were departing your home country for the first time. What would you be thinking and feeling? If you were to write a diary entry or letter communicating these feelings, what would it say?

3. What do Punch’s early absences without leave suggest about army life?

4. Investigate the actions undertaken by the 1st Battalion in France. What major battles were they involved in? What happened at Pozières in France?

5. What impact would Punch’s repeated illnesses and wounds have had on his emotional and psychological wellbeing?

What would have been some of the advantages and disadvantages of the great coat?

6. What challenges would soldiers have faced during the bitter winter of 1916? How are the soldiers coping with the weather in this diorama?

7. William was given a full military funeral, but many other Indigenous Australians were denied this. Why?

8. It has been said that the soldiers’ shared experience in the AIF during the First World War united them regardless of their diverse backgrounds and beliefs. Why would this have been so?