William John Hughes





Link to Service Record: http://discoveringanzacs.naa.gov.au/browse/records/344724

William John Hughes was born circa 1894 in Katoomba. He has been identified as a Gundungurra man, through his father James Hughes. The Hughes’ are documented as living in Katoomba in 1901 according to the NSW census of that year.

The family of James Hughes, of Megalong Road, South Katoomba, was one of eight families in the area containing Aboriginal people.

Hughes enlisted on 24 October 1916 in Bathurst and left Sydney on the HMAT Benalla on 9 November 1916.

After training in England he arrived in France at the end of April, 1917.

He saw action on the Western Front in the thickest of the fighting, including the Battles of Bullecourt (a village in northern France) and the Battles of Ypres. He attested in a Blue Mountains Echo article in September 1919 that he was wounded during the Ypres action but three weeks later he was “renewing his acquaintances with Fritz at Hill 60”. Hill 60 had been captured by the Germans in the First Battle of Ypres in November 1914. Australian tunnellers played a vital role in the detonation of part of a series of huge mines beneath the enemy’s trenches between 17 April and 7 May 1917, when The Allies captured the hill. They held it until the German spring offensive, and recaptured it again in September 1918.

On 10 January 1918, deep in the winter on the Somme, Hughes was hospitalised with trench fever at the 2nd Australian General Hospital in Wimereux. He did not rejoin his unit until the spring, on 2 April.

Hughes was wounded in action on 15 August 1918, with wounds to his forearms, right leg and left thigh. He was sent to one of the many British base hospitals in Rouen, a picturesque and ancient city on the Seine, which was a safe distance from the front line.

Rejoining his battalion on the 18th of September he was serving when the Armistice, ending the war, was signed on 11th November, 1918.

The 2nd Battalion was then encamped at Heytesbury, Wiltshire prior to embarking from Southampton for Sydney on 6 July 1919.

He returned on the Boorara, disembarking in Sydney on 26 August 1919. He had been away for nearly three years.

Returned soldiers were enthusiastically welcomed back to their local areas. Private William Hughes arrived by train at Katoomba station to be greeted by a large crowd of friends and family. He was interviewed by a reporter from the local Blue Mountains Echo (to view article go to   http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/108245574).

What Hughes didn’t say in this interview was that he and his mate had been court-martialled for active service desertion in the summer of 1918.

Probably known as ‘Bob’ or Frank, Private Robert Frank Anderson (service number 4618) was a Presbyterian plumber from St Peters in Sydney’s inner west and a couple of years younger than Hughes. The pair may have been known as ‘Billy and Bob’. They had both absented themselves from the Support Trench on 20 June 1918 ‘until surrendering to Traffic Police at LONGUE CROIX’ on June 23rd.

The details of the court martial provide a vivid picture of life on the Western Front in France in the summer of 1918 – and an idea of the strong war friendships that saw no colour barrier.

Both were found guilty and received a sentence of 10 years penal servitude. Luckily for Hughes, as was common in the Australian Imperial Force, the sentence was later put into remission. The British armed forces were much more severe in penalising desertion during active service.

Sadly, Private Robert Anderson died of influenza in 30th General Hospital, 1st of March 1919.


Herbert (L) and William (R) Hughes


Life after WWI and Family Memories

Sometime in the 1920s, when he was close to 30, William moved to his mother’s Country around Cowra and settled in Gooloogong (spelt Goolagong until 1924). Christina ‘Cookie’ Glass (sometimes Christine in documents) was a Wiradjuri woman who had married James Hughes in Orange in 1892 aged 18. She must have also moved back to her Country, as she died in Gooloogong in 1944. On her death certificate her children are listed as William, 50, John 48, James 44, Mabel 38, Herbert 44 (all living) and ‘two females deceased’ – these would have been her second child, May, and a later daughter, Emily, who died aged 12 in Cowra.

William fitted into a wide network of family and friends in Gooloogong – Margaret Ann Corrie is the granddaughter of William’s sister Mabel Hughes, who married another Wiradjuri man, Richard Samuel Grant from Cowra, then in 1939 a Greek man, Louis Bardakis. At the time she knew her ‘Uncle Billy’, Margaret Gannon (as she was then) lived with her grandmother Mabel Bardakis at Farleigh’s Reserve, a vegetable farm (now a campsite) on the Lachlan River between Cowra and Gooloogong. Memories of William from his great niece Margaret, who was nine years old when he died in 1959, help us understand the person behind the image of the young Aboriginal soldier in England in the aftermath of the Great War, reading a book and far from home (above).


Margaret Gannon as a child in the 1950’s (Photo courtesy of Margaret Ann Corrie)


My Uncle Billy – by Margaret Ann Corrie nee Gannon (Grandniece of William)

“Uncle Billy, Uncle Harry [his younger brother Herbert] and Uncle Tommy [a friend] camped under the trees at Farleigh’s Reserve. There was also a little tiny shack that Uncle Black Tommy (Tommy Smith) and William and Harry had. But he didn’t like to sleep indoors, he lived for the outdoors. He didn’t like being with people, he didn’t socialise much.

Uncle Billy was a lean man, very tiny-framed, he never drank, was never overweight. He never smoked – he was against it, thought it was foolish. He was very much the gentlemen, didn’t like people drinking to excess. I was told that his mother, Christina Glass, my great-grandmother, was a very proud and religious woman. They lived by the bible. Uncle Billy was also very religious. 

He was my mentor, he used to teach me about animals – I had the same love of animals as him. Uncle Billy used to teach me how to speak to the emus. He could walk up to any animal and calm them.

He’d lay in under the trees, covered in bark, and wait for cockatoos to perch for the night. The birds would drop, he would use sulphur. He wanted the young birds – he taught them to speak and then sold them.

Uncle Billy was very much the leader. There are still men in Gooloogong who remember him and still speak highly of him. He was known in Gooloogong as a champion woodchopper and he worked as a bouncer at the Gooloogong pub. He was quite the woodchopper, the bouncer, the cockatoo trainer. He was better than Crocodile Dundee!

The woman he loved was stolen by one of his brothers while he was at war. He didn’t have any children but Harry Hughes and William Hughes raised Lionel Robert Gannon, when his mother Florence May Berwick died. Lionel passed away in 2000.

He died 1959 – his service number is on his grave at Goologong Cemetery. A very lonely looking grave – like he was alienated from the others. He didn’t get the recognition he deserved. After he returned, he went to the first Anzac march in Sydney. He went down proudly, wearing his medals. He was bashed, beaten, arrested for stealing his medals. ‘What’s a blackie like you wearing medals?’ He never marched again. Later his war medals were stolen.”


Sadly, William was arrested wearing his war medals just days before Anzac Day 1921. At the 1920 Anzac Day march in Sydney, only seven months after the soldier had been welcomed home from the war in Europe with such high hopes for his life in Australia, he had been accused of stealing his medals and faced racist abuse. Perhaps he had been desperately reacting against this treatment at the time of his arrest – William had no criminal record and later lived a quiet life in Gooloogong.

‘Escaped Prisoners’, NSW Police Gazette, 20th April, 1921