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The story starts on Christmas day 1918. Australian soldiers are eating at the Bickendorf base, in Germany, when a little boy wanders in, introducing himself as Honoré. He explains that his family was killed at the beginning of the war and that British soldiers took him under their wing.
Since Honoré is hard to pronounce in English, the Australian soldiers soon called the boy Henri nicknamed him Digger. He became their mascot for a few months.
Tim Tovell, who became close with the boy, wanted to bring him back home to live with his family. In May 1919, he hid Henri in an oats bag, then in a basket on a boat heading to Australia.
When Henri was finally discovered, the captain of the boat agreed to keep his presence a secret. But the story ended up public anyway and became a media sensation. Tim and his family were allowed to adopt Henri, who lived in Queensland with them for five years.
A tragic ending
Henri then moved to Melbourne to work as an office boy and apprentice aircraft mechanic.
Sadly, he died in 1928 in a motorcycle accident. After his burial at Melbourne Fawkner Cemetery, a statue was erected in his honour, but it disappeared in the 1950’s.
In 2009, the RAFF Association of Victoria and the federal government inaugurated a new headstone in honour of Henri.
The book Young Digger
The author Anthony Hill first wrote a popular children’s book about Henri in 2002, before adapting it into a book for adults.
To piece together the story of Henri and Tim, Anthony Hill used the writing of Tim Tovell, newspaper archives, photos and postcards. He also spoke to Tim’s daughters Nancy and Edie. They both had many memories of Tim, whom they considered as their little brother.
After he wrote the first book, Anthony Hills collected many new photos and information that made it into the second book.
Listen to our 2016 interview with Anthony Hill to learn more about Young Digger:
The mystery remains
Even after the release of the book Young Digger, the identity of Henri remains nebulous. We know that he was French or Belgian, that his real name was Honoré and that he was taken by British soldiers near Lille. We also think that his father worked in or owned a brewery and that he died during the Battle of Mons in August 1914.
The French Consul in Brisbane met the boy after he arrived in Australia and according to him, he spoke very good French, not a patois.
Anthony Hill collected many clues, but we’re still not sure Henri was. “The story is still alive,” says the author. “Only when somebody can demonstrate who the boy really was, where he came from and who his family was, will the story come to an end.”