Air Force Association Victoria

Supporting Those Who Served And Who Are Serving

War Mascot's Death

An exact transcript of article from ‘The Argus’ Newspaper, 25th May 1928

Carried Aboard in a Basket of Bread

Fatal injuries received in a motoring accident yesterday morning have closed the romantic career of Henri Hemene Tovell, a French orphan who was adopted by the Fourth Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps (now the Royal Australian Air Force) on active service. After suffering cruelly in the war – and few Australians have any conception of the terrible privations which befell the French and Belgian peasantry while the battle raged all round them – Henri was “adopted” by the kindly “diggers” in the Fourth Squadron , and was actually “smuggled” by them from France to England, and eventually on a troopship to Australia. The “diggers” called Henri their mascot, and so great was the bond of affection between the soldiers and the homeless peasant boy that the men pitted their wits against those of the vigilant police and other officials, and succeeded in keeping him in their care. At the time of his death Henri’s age was only 18 years, although the official records at Point Cooke, where he was employed at the flying station as a mechanic, gave it as 20 years, his “official” 21st birthday falling on Christmas Day of this year.

There is more than a touch of pathos about the life story of Henri Tovell, as related yesterday by his guardian. Losing his parents in the early months of the war, the boy wandered about France from unit to unit. Twice he was wounded, but each time he returned to the lines and joined a new section. Finally he was “adopted” by the Fourth Squadron. Police officials made several attempts to prevent the boy leaving, but whenever necessary he was smuggled away, once being stowed among bags of official records, and once in a sack of loaves of bread.

Henri Tovell’s history, as Air Force men know it, commences in January of 1915 at the small French town of Seclin. The boy was then aged five years, and he lived with his mother, sisters, and his brother. His father was a French soldier in the front line. One week early in that year the father came home on leave, but the happiness of the reunited family was short-lived. A bombardment by a German heavy artillery unit began, and Henri, who had been playing in the street, hurried to his home to find that those whom he loved were dead. The house had been destroyed. Homeless, Henri wondered from Seclin miles away until he was taken and cared for by a French howitzer battery. Three months later the boy was wounded and admitted to hospital. After discharge he wandered away again, and then joined a field artillery brigade. He was wounded a second time. On recovering he found his way to the Royal Flying Corps. The boy went from unit to unit, until the middle of 1917, when he “joined” the Fourth Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps. He remained with that squadron until he reached Australia. The most interesting part of his life was that between 1917 and his arrival in Australia in June, 1919.

Avoiding the Gendarmes

With the Fourth Squadron the boy was in Cologne for three months, later going through Germany, France and Belgium, and spending some time at the demobilisation camp at Le Havre. In April, 1919, the Squadron left Le Havre for Southampton, and then the trouble with the gendarmes began. They knew that the boy was being taken away under cover, and they did their best to prevent his leaving France. The boy had become so attached to the men of the squadron that both he and they were determined that he should go. Accordingly, he was hidden among bags of official records, and in one of the bags he was smuggled on board ship. He arrived safely at Southampton, and went to the Hurdcott camp at Salisbury Plains. At Hurdcott the squadron subscribed about £60 for the boy, and at the suggestion of the commanding officer (Major Ellis) he was dressed in the uniform of the Australian Flying Corps. Although aged only nine years, Henri proudly wore two wound stripes.

The next difficulty was faced when the squadron left for Australia. The English civilian police and the military police acting in conjunction with the gendarmes again attempted to prevent the boy going with the Australians, and elaborate precautions were taken. It is said that Major Ellis wagered £25 that the boy would leave for Australia and the bet was “taken” by a sporting regimental transport officer on the understanding that if Henri once reached an allotted cabin on the transport ship he would be allowed to leave England.

Hidden Among Loaves

On the day of departure interest centred in “Young Digger”, as the little French boy was known. Military police and special officers examined everything taken on board the troopship Kaiser-I-Hind. There was a large pile of bags containing bread for the trip, and it was in one of these bags that “Digger” was hidden. Cottage loaves were packed into the sack, the boy went next, with loaves wedged around him, and with three tiers above his head. The bag was stitched up and the remainder left to luck. Anxiety was felt when each sack of loaves was thoroughly examined, but the all-important sack came late in line, when the special officers had become a little lax. Several loaves were taken from Henri’s bag, but he was not discovered. Soon he was standing in his miniature Australian uniform in Major Ellis’s cabin. The regimental transport officer was told that the boy was safely on board, and he frankly paid over the £25, and allowed the boy to take passage in the ship. The 1,500 “diggers” on the Kaiser-I-Hind quickly got to know him.

That was not the end, however, for on the following day the captain of the ship recognised the boy as he walked along one of the decks, and he made arrangements to have him arrested. The late Mr. T. J. Ryan, a former Premier of Queensland, who was a passenger, and Colonel Oswald Watt, the O.C. Troops, paid the fine for the stowaway, and finally ensured the boy’s departure. The present Minister for Defence (Sir William Glasgow) and Sir John Gellibrand, M.H.R., were on board the Kaiser-I-Hind.

In Australia Henri went to a suburb of Brisbane with Mr. T. Tovell, a member of the squadron, and lived with him as foster son for 18 months. At the end of 1920 the boy, then aged about 11 years, came to Melbourne and lived with friends at Gardenvale until he could be employed at Point Cook. He became a mechanic with the Royal Australian Air Force, and was there at the time of his death.

Tovell will be given a semi-official funeral this afternoon. The cortège will leave Moor Street, Fitzroy, at 2 o’clock, arriving at the Fawkner cemetery before half-past 2 o’clock.


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