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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Allen, William Irwin (1878–1918)

by Robin Munro, Christopher Munro and Peter Milliken

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

William Irwin Allen, 1916

William Irwin Allen, 1916

Australian War Memorial

William (Bill) Irwin Allen (1878–1918), shearer and soldier, also known as William Allan Irwin (1878–1918), was born on 3 July 1878 at Forky/Forked Mountain (later Burra Bee Dee Aboriginal reserve) near Coonabarabran, New South Wales, eldest of three sons of Gomeroi (Gamilaraay) man William Allen and his wife Eliza, née Griffin. Bill’s maternal grandparents were Eugene Griffin, an Irish convict, and Jane, an Aboriginal woman who is thought to have come from the Maitland region. His brothers were Henry (Harry) and John (Jack). Eliza left the boys’ father and formed a new relationship with William Grose, with whom she had three more sons. All six of her sons took the surname Grose for a time.

Bill, Harry, and Jack worked together as shearers in northern New South Wales in places such as Quirindi, Werris Creek, and Moree during the late 1890s and early 1900s. They planned to marry three sisters, but Bill’s intended married another man in 1915. Broken-hearted, Bill enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on 6 January 1916 at Narrabri, using the name William Allan Irwin. Harry, who was very close to Bill, was distraught as he felt that a thirty-seven-year-old Aboriginal shearer had no business joining the AIF to fight a war on the other side of the world. He tried to stop his brother leaving, riding on horseback from Caroona to Newcastle, then catching a train to Sydney to try to intercept the departing ship, HMAT Marathon, but it sailed a day early. Harry was told that the ship would stop in Brisbane so he boarded another train and headed north, but the ship did not stop. He would never see his older brother again.

Men judged ‘not substantially of European origin or descent’ (NAA A1559) were not permitted to join the AIF, but around one thousand of those who enlisted have since been identified as Aboriginal. Allen’s physical description at the time of his enlistment—dark complexion, dark brown eyes, and black hair—signalled his Aboriginality, but no other mention was made of his ethnicity on his service record. He was five feet nine inches (175 cm) tall and weighed 145 pounds (66 kg).

An original member of the 33rd Battalion, known as ‘New England’s Own,’ Allen left Australia on 4 May 1916 for England, arriving in early July. The battalion spent the next four months training, crossing to France and the trenches of the Western Front in November. On 7 June 1917 the 33rd took part in the battle of Messines, Belgium. Wounded in action, Allen was sent back to England to recover before rejoining his unit. He was seriously wounded several more times in the coming months, requiring hospitalisation.

In August 1918 the 33rd was deployed as part of an expanded force to defend the approaches to Villers-Bretonneux, France, during the battle of Amiens. Reconnaissance found the area heavily defended by a number of German machine-gun nests. On the morning of 31 August at Road Wood near Péronne, Allen single-handedly, ‘and in the face of heavy fire … rushed three separate machine-gun nests, capturing the guns and crews’ (NAA B2455). While rushing a fourth, he was fatally wounded. He died on 1 September 1918 and was buried at Daours, France.

For his actions at Road Wood, Allen was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, his ‘irresistible dash [having] inspired the whole of his company’ (NAA B2455). One member of his company was Englishman George Cartwright who, during the battle at Road Wood, also stood up and fired at a German gunner, clearing a single nest. According to Charles Bean, Australia’s official war historian, Cartwright acted first: ‘Pte. Irwin, an Australian half-caste, after attacking like Cartwright, was mortally wounded’ (Bean 1942, 819). Bean failed to mention that Allen cleared three nests before falling. Subsequent histories have neglected to mention Allen’s heroic deeds at all, recording only Cartwright’s bravery, which earned him the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry.

Despite Bean’s account, it is not clear whether Allen’s actions preceded or followed Cartwright’s; it is possible that the nest Cartwright cleared was the fourth before which Allen had fallen. After the war, a friend of Allen’s from the 33rd Battalion visited his family at Caroona, New South Wales, and told them what had happened at Road Wood, confirming not only that it was Allen who acted first, but also that he had acted independently, making his move before first light. He offered to give the family 640 acres (260 ha) of land as payment for Allen’s sacrifice, but they refused, seeing it as blood money. Later, a local schoolteacher who asked to display Allen’s medals at the school disappeared with them; they were never recovered. This, coupled with Allen’s effective exclusion from the historical record and Cartwright’s elevation, was galling to Allen’s family, some of whom believed that Allen, who received shrapnel wounds to the back, was the victim of friendly fire.

Allen’s heroic deeds, the story of which continues to be passed down in the extended Allen and Allan families, remain a source of immense pride for his family and community. In 2018 he was included in the Australian War Memorial’s travelling exhibition For Country, for Nation, which highlights Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences of war, a belated public commemoration of his achievements compared to the much celebrated non-Indigenous soldier Cartwright whose medals are on display at the Imperial War Museum, London, and who is remembered in the New South Wales Garden of Remembrance, Rookwood.

 

Christopher Munro is the great-great nephew of William Irwin Allen. He is of Gomeroi, Scottish, and Irish descent. He was born on Wurundjeri Country and was living on Dja Dja Wurrung land when he co-wrote this entry.

Peter Milliken is the great nephew of William Irwin Allen. He is of Gomeroi, Scottish, and Irish descent. He was born on Deerubbin Country and was living on Gadubanud land when he co-wrote this entry.

Robin Munro is the great niece of William Irwin Allen. She is of Gomeroi, Scottish, and Irish descent. She was born on Gomeroi Country and was living on Dja Dja Wurrung land when she co-wrote this entry.

Select Bibliography

  • Bean, Charles. The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Allied Offensive, 1918. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1942
  • Family knowledge of IADB subject
  • Hunter, Claire. ‘Remembering William Allan Irwin.’ Australian War Memorial. 25 July 2018. Accessed 18 August 2021. https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/william-allan-irwin. Copy held on ABD file
  • Munro, Chris. ‘An “Irresistible Dash.”’ Tracker 4, no. 22 (May 2013): 22–25
  • National Archives of Australia. B2455, IRWIN WILLIAM ALLAN
  • National Archives of Australia. A1559, 1909/15

Citation details

Robin Munro, Christopher Munro and Peter Milliken, 'Allen, William Irwin (1878–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/allen-william-irwin-31979/text39456, accessed 28 May 2022.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012

William Irwin Allen, 1916

William Irwin Allen, 1916

Australian War Memorial