For acts of incredible bravery, William Allan Irwin brought great honour to indigenous Australian soldiers in the closing months of the Great War, World War 1.
It’s 100 years since Private Irwin rushed enemy emplacements on the Western Front in France, disabling four enemy emplacements, with his “irresistible dash” under fire leading to the second highest award for valour, the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
In this engagement, however, Private Irwin was mortally wounded, dying the next day in a casualty clearing station behind the battlefield.
A member of the Allan family of Walhallow Aboriginal village near Quirindi, his real name was William Irwin Allan but he used his middle name as his surname when he enlisted for service in January 1916, taking the surname of an uncle.
Estimates vary but it is believed that between 1000 and 1500 indigenous soldiers served in the AIF in World War 1, despite a clause in the Defence Act of 1903, which decreed that those who enlisted had to be of “substantial European origin”. As deaths on the Western Front rose to a peak of 20,450 in 1917, and after the defeat of two referendums on conscription put forward by Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes, a new military order was introduced – “half-castes may be enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force provided that the examining medical officers are satisfied that one of the parents is of European origin”.
Private Irwin was the grandson of an Irish convict and a traditional Aboriginal woman. His father was William Allan and his mother Eliza Griffin. Soldier William Allan (Irwin) was born in Coonabarabran in 1878 and was 37 when he was drafted into the 33rd Battalion, leaving for the war zone in May 1916.
Over the next two years he became a battle-hardened veteran on the killing fields of the Western Front, where 46,000 members of the AIF died between 1916 and 1918.
Wounded in the right arm in April 1918, Private Irwin was sent to England for treatment, returning to his unit three months later, just as the tide of a long and catastrophic war began to turn in the Allies’ favour.
The German Army, bolstered by troops returning from the Eastern Front after the capitulation of Russia, had made enormous gains on the Western Front in early 1918, recovering all of the ground they had secured between 1914 and 1916, at the southern-most point drawing to within 30 miles of the French capital, Paris.
But with the arrival of United States troops in 1918, the Allies began clawing their way back with pivotal battles in mid-1918, including Hamel, Amiens, Peronne, Mont St Quentin and Montbrehain before the German capitulation in November.
Just back in the front lines in the middle of 1918, Private Irwin’s heroic actions occurred at Road Wood on August 31, 1918, where Australian troops were pinned down by withering fire from the elite Prussian Guard and forced to lie on their stomachs on the forest floor.
After a counter-artillery barrage from behind the Australian lines, however, Private Irwin and another soldier, Private George Cartwright, jumped to their feet and rushed German machine-gun posts, capturing the guns and crew. After turning their attention to a fourth post, however, Private Irwin was mortally wounded, going down with shell wounds to the back and thigh.
Private Cartwright continued the assault on the fourth machine gun post, clearing it with a grenade and taking nine prisoners.
It is not known if the two soldiers acted independently or made a joint decision to attack the machine-gun nests.
Private Irwin was taken to the 61st Casualty Clearing Station and died the next day. He was buried the same day at Daours Communal Cemetery at nearby Corbie.
Notification was later received that he had been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), his citation reading:
“For most distinguished gallantry and devotion to duty during the operations at Road Wood on August 31, 1918. Single-handed and in the face of extremely heavy fire, Private Irwin rushed three separate machine-gun posts and captured the three guns and crews. It was while rushing a fourth machine gun that he was severely wounded. On his irresistible dash and magnificent gallantry, this man materially assisted our advance through this strongly-held and defended wood; and by his daring actions he greatly assisted the whole of his company.”
Private Irwin’s DCM was one of only three awarded to indigenous soldiers in World War 1 – the others went to Corporal Albert Knight, of Bourke, who fought with the 43rd Battalion on the Western Front, and Lance Corporal Richard Norman Kirby, of Dubbo, an infantryman in the 20th Battalion. Private Irwin and Lance Corporal Kirby were killed in action in France in August 1918.
Private Cartwright, originally from South Kensington, London, enlisted at Inverell in 1915. He was awarded the Victoria Cross, his citation praising his “wonderful dash, grim determination and courage of the highest order”.
In 1934 a memorial to Aboriginal soldiers from the Walhallow district was unveiled at the Walhallow Public School. This year, in the 100th year of the end of the Great War, a grant has been won by the Walhallow Aboriginal Corporation for the restoration and improvement of the memorial, which will also record the centenary of the exploits in battle of William Allan Irwin. The function will be held in November.