Every year, on November 11, Bella Couzens would dress in her Sunday best, proudly pin on a set of shiny war medals and at 11am, shed silent tears for the brother who never came home to Framlingham.
On August 9, 1918, barely two months out from the Great War’s end, William Reginald Rawlings died a decorated war hero fighting for King and country in the muddy, bloody battlefields of northern France.
And there he remained, the fighting Gunditjmara man, buried on foreign French soil, his bereft family left to mourn on the other side of the world.
It would be almost a century before a family member would stand before his grave among the rows of white headstones of fallen Aussie Diggers.
Fiona Clarke’s pilgrimage to pay her respects to her great-uncle ‘Reg’ at the Heath military cemetery in the French Somme village of Harbonnieres last March was an experience she will never forget. Now the historic occasion has been preserved for others to share following the production of a video of the day.
On Remembrance Day this Sunday, 100 years since the guns fell silent on the Western Front, the Warrnambool-based artist and her family will pay tribute to ‘Uncle Reg’ and all of his fallen comrades with a special Warrnambool service and screening of the movie.
Forever grateful to the Australian soldiers for their part in helping win their country’s freedom, the French will also gather, thousands of kilometres away, on Sunday to watch this poignant footage in the village church at Harbonnieres where the movie was shot and in nearby Rosieres-en-Santerre in an exhibition to mark the centenary of the Armistice.
The 20-minute video will also be shown in Paris at the Quai Branly Museum on November 13 as part of an event focusing on the Antipodes in the Great War, and in Melbourne on November 24 by the Alliance Francaise.
For Ms Clarke and her family, Sunday’s tribute is an opportunity to pay their respects not only to one of their own, but all of those whose young lives were cut short by the carnage of war.
One of 30 Victorian Aborigines to enlist in World War I, 15 from the Western District, Private Rawlings was one of only three Aborigines Australia-wide to be awarded the Military Medal.
He was a shy young horse breaker from the Framlingham Aboriginal mission, but on the battlefields, he was a first bayonet man in the 29th Battalion AIF, his Military Medal earned for a display of ‘rare bravery’, routing the enemy in a German trench in an advance at Morlancourt Ridge on July 28, 1918.
Less than a fortnight later on August 9, the 27-year-old was dead, killed in the action to capture Vauvillers, on the same day as his mate and fellow Aboriginal Military Medal recipient, Corporal Harry Thorpe. They were buried just rows apart at Heath cemetery.
On a chilly spring morning last March, Ms Clarke and her husband Ken McKean made the tearful pilgrimage to Uncle Reg’s final resting place. There to witness the emotional moment and pay their respects were representatives from the media, French war veterans associations, local dignitaries and residents, with a guard of honour and a spontaneous rendition of ‘La Marseillaise’.
It was the realisation of a dream for Ms Clarke, who had vowed from childhood to one day pay her respects to the young soldier whose photo took pride of place on the living room wall of her grandmother, Bella’s Framlingham home.
She was overwhelmed by the occasion, the interest and heart-warming welcome by the locals which extended to a reception later in the church hall.
“It felt like I had completed something, for him (Reg) and my family, but my grandmother Isabella, (Bella) she was the main one I had in my thoughts,” she said.
It was the culmination of the trip of a lifetime for Ms Clarke who was in France for the launch of the French version of her father Banjo Clarke’s autobiography, “Wisdom Man: Banjo Clarke as told to Camilla Chance” at the Paris Book Fair.
The book, which makes mention of Private Rawlings’ deeds, was translated by respected French researcher specialising in indigenous Australian literature Estelle Castro-Koshy. Entitled ‘Un homme de Sagesse’, the translation has made the second short-list for this year’s translation prize by the French Society of People of Letters. It has also been translated into Spanish, German and Korean.
Ms Castro-Koshy, who accompanied Ms Clarke at the book fair and battlefields visit, said she had established a strong connection to Ms Clarke’s family through the translation process, describing their first meeting in Paris as “like meeting relatives”.
“I felt very grateful to be able to take Fiona to visit Uncle Reg’s grave and I was very moved by how caring, generous, thoughtful, moved and warm the people who welcomed us at Heath cemetery and in Harbonnieres were, how eager they were to be there on the day and meet Fiona.”
Unbeknown to Ms Clarke, the day was captured on film as a lasting record of the historic occasion.
Ms Castro-Koshy engaged noted French filmmaker Dominique Masson for the project, together producing the video which will be screened at Sunday’s tribute.
“I didn’t know any of this was going to happen,” said Ms Clarke, clearly humbled by the gesture. “It was a really big surprise. It means so much to me. There are some really good people over there.”
On Sunday, Ms Clarke’s brother Lenny Clarke will share the story of the great uncle he heard so much about as a young boy.
Raised by his grandmother Bella, Mr Clarke said Reg’s death had had a lasting effect on his grandmother and the family generally.
“Here was a young man who had gone from the peace of the Framlingham forest, from a very respected family, to be trained as a lethal killer, a front bayonet man, never to come home,” Mr Clarke said.
“My grandmother used to talk about her brother all the time. She obviously missed him. He never left her thoughts.
“I understood from an early age what war meant to the people who survived.”
Mr Clarke said he clearly recalled his grandmother’s Remembrance Day ritual, helping her pin Uncle Reg’s treasured war medals to her Sunday-best dress.
“I would watch my grandmother reverently sit in her Sunday clothes to honour her brother,” he said.
Mr Clarke said given the scant consideration most indigenous soldiers were afforded on their return from the war, he was pleased they were finally gaining greater recognition and appreciation.
“I was always disappointed that these people weren’t recognised, that they were hidden away in Anzac archives and in families’ minds. It’s good to see there’s recognition now, so long as history is not distorted,” he said.
- Sunday’s tribute to Private Reg Rawlings will be held from 1pm at the Gunditjmara Aboriginal Co-Operative in Harris St, Warrnambool. It will include a welcome to country by Brett Clarke, addresses by Lenny Clarke and Fiona Clarke and movie screening. There will also be a display of memorabilia associated with Private Rawlings and book sales of the Banjo Clarke book, ‘Wisdom Man’. Members of the public are welcome.