WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following article contains images of deceased persons.
In Mervyn Allen’s home, Uncle Bill takes pride of place.
Inside the entrance to his house in Tamworth, NSW, is a picture of a confident digger in his uniform with a handlebar moustache and a piercing stare.
The man is William Allan Irwin, a Gomeroi man who died charging his fourth machine gun nest during the 1918 Battle of Mont St Quentin in France.
What is remarkable is that at the time, Australia didn’t even consider him a citizen because he was Aboriginal.
In his monumental official history of the war, Charles Bean noted the actions of “Australian half-caste” Private Irwin. It is the historian’s only reference to an Indigenous person in his 12-volumes on World War One.
More than 1,000 Indigenous Australians served in the war, according to the Australian War Memorial.
A human hero
William Irwin previously worked as a shearer in rural New South Wales.
“He used to like himself a lot and go up to the mirror and say ‘Who’s this big gun shearer?’” 80-year-old Mr Allen says of the uncle he never met.
“They reckon he was an outgoing bloke. He was a funny bloke.”
He joined the military in 1916, aged 37, because of a broken heart.
“The lady he was going with went and married another man and I think that’s why he joined the army,” Mr Allen says. “Jilted love, they call it.”
Fighting in numerous battles and being wounded several times didn’t stop Bill Irwin returning to his unit ahead of his final heroic charge.
With his mates pinned down near a place called Road Wood, Private Irwin displayed “most distinguished gallantry and devotion”, according to his bravery citation.
In August 1918 “single-handed and in face of extremely heavy fire, Private Irwin rushed three separate machine gun posts”, capturing the guns and German crews.
While rushing the fourth, he was wounded. He died just a couple of months before the end of the war.
The missing medals
A week after his death, his superiors successfully recommended him for the Commonwealth’s second-highest military honour: the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
His name lives on, on the Australian War Memorial’s Roll of Honour, alongside more than 100,000 other Australians who died in war. But a mystery remains for his descendants: the whereabouts of his medals.
“I was told by my mother that a school teacher put them on display in the school and when the school teacher left, the medals went with him. Never ever saw them again,” Mr Allen told SBS.
“My sister’s chased them up in Sydney, in other different places, looking for them, like going to the RSLs and all that.”
Peter Milliken, the grandnephew of William Irwin, is also searching for them.
“Somebody out there in this country has possibly still got those medals,” he said.
“These medals will still have his name written on the rim of them.”
Somebody out there in this country has possibly still got those medals.
– Peter Milliken, relative
His family has replicas of the three medals he was awarded and his remains lie at the Daours war cemetery in France. Some of his descendants want to repatriate his remains.
“We’d love this government to allow us to pay for the return of his bones,” Mr Milliken said.
“It’s our culture that he returns back to his country, his homelands and be buried back with his brothers.”