Eyes brown, Hair black, Complexion dark
Henry Westerway at War
Tin miner Henry Westerway enlisted in Armidale on September 17, 1915 and joined the 55th Battalion AIF. In March 1916, he embarked on the HMAT Star of England troop ship landing in Marseilles, France destined to fight on the Western Front.
On July 12, 1916, Henry Westerway entered the frontline trenches for the first time and then on July 20 they fought their first major battle - the Battle of Fromelles - where they suffered shocking casualties. Private Henry Westerway was one of those gassed and eventually taken prisoner by the Germans – one of 470 prisoners taken:
“It was the energy and push of the Australians that had been the cause of his becoming a prisoner, for they had pushed forward too far, and some of them were surrounded and captured.”
This was how Henry’s capture was described at his hometown welcome in Tingha in October 1919. In that same report, Henry said that, unlike others, he was not treated so badly and they had a good camp commander. Initially, they lived on mainly gruel and water but, after the Red Cross parcels arrived, they no longer had to rely on German food.
Henry was held in Dulmen prison camp and later transferred to Munster prison camp in Westphalia, Germany until the end of the war. In December 1918, he was conveyed to the UK still desperately ill suffering the effects of gassing.
One of the sad parts of Henry’s story is that his father, also a tin miner in Tingha, did not know for ten months that his son had been taken prisoner. This was due to a misspelling of his address on the envelope carrying the devastating news.
Finding Henry Westerway
In 2016, three generations of Henry Westerway’s family held a commemorative service at the newly refurbished grave of Henry Westerway to pay respects to the sacrifices Henry made during World War 1.
Henry was gassed and taken prisoner of war at the Battle of Fromelles. War records show that he nearly died and was dangerously ill for much of his imprisonment and, although he returned home after the war, his health was compromised, and he died at a young age.
Warren Smith, begins his grandfather’s story:
“It is only recently I learned that Henry was probably from Anaiwan Aboriginal descendancy. I have connected with Westerway family members living in Inverell who are the first family I have ever met.
The scars of war affected our family generations later. My mother and I had hard upbringings due to the premature death of my grandparents and I am guessing it was not made any easier coming from an Aboriginal descendant.
I was surprised to locate his grave in Macquarie Park Cemetery near my home in Ryde and was able to arrange for his grave to be refurbished to honour the sacrifice he has made for his country and so generations to follow do not forget him as one of a little over 1000 aboriginal men that fought in WWI.”
Finding Henry has been made difficult by confusion about Henry’s date and place of birth. German POW records show a birthdate of 25 October 1885 in Inverell while attestation papers show his birthplace as Mount Browne via Broken Hill - just west of Milparinka and about 1000 km from Inverell. To complicate matters further, Henry’s birth registration was changed in 1939 by court order to show his birth as 17 March 1885 at Bingara (about 70 km west of Inverell). As Henry was indigenous, it is likely that record keeping in that era might be suspect or even non-existent.
Henrys Return to Australia after the War
While he was convalescing, Henry met his bride to be, Emily May Riley, known as May. They married in Leyton, Essex on 10 February 1919. Later that year, they returned to Australia aboard the troop ship SS Indarra, setting up home in Willoughby, Sydney - naming their home Leyton in honour of May’s hometown and the place they had married. Henry and May had one daughter, Stella, and sadly both died at a relatively young age.
Henry’s grandson, Warren Smith, observed:
“Many Aboriginal men were inspired to go to war because they were treated as equals but on their return to Australia were again segregated.
My grandfather was fortunate to make a fresh break with his new English wife starting a life in Sydney and hid the facts of his background.
I am fairly certain my mother never knew of her ancestry as it was never mentioned while I was growing up and it is only doing research that I discovered he was a very special man in Australian wartime history.
It is sad to think his grave was left unmarked and unvisited for 75 years in Macquarie Park Cemetery, Sydney before being recently discovered.
The Australia War Graves [sic] have now recognised him so that future generations know the important role Henry played in our history.”
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