Darwin war history
Written by Craig Wharton.
I purchased a Luger from the Australian Arms Auctions in May 2015. What intrigued me about this particular Luger was the fact that the Digger who captured it actually wrote on the holster flap his rank, name and battalion as well as where he acquired it. According to the catalogue description he was a Sergeant ‘JC’ Robinson of the 23rd Battalion.
Preliminary research through the Australian War Memorial (AWM) archives and the 23rd Battalion unit history nominal roll did not reveal a ‘JC’ but there was a Joseph George Robinson in the battalion and he was a Sergeant. Not only that, he was a Military Medal recipient. It appears that he went by the name of George so that is how I will refer to him in the text of this article.
Hitting the auction
Armed with this information I set off for the Melbourne auction to examine the holster for clues. Had anyone else done their homework? I suspect they did as I finished up paying $400 more than what the other Lugers went for. Still it just proves the value of research when purchasing such items.
During the viewing pre-auction all the prospective bidders, dealers and collectors, had their microscopes out minutely examining the items that interested them. Biding my time I finally got to examine the item of interest to me. The assistant handed me the holstered Luger and must have been taken slightly aback when I handed the Luger back to him and said, “The holster is the most important bit”. I could see at a glance that the Luger was in excellent condition.
Close examination of the inscribed holster flap revealed what I had suspected. The handwritten initials were actually ‘JG’ and not ‘JC’. A simple typo but my research paid off. Now I was excited.
The brown leather holster was also in very good condition. It had the maker’s name and date punched into the inside of the flap. The strike was off-centred to the right making the left part hard to read, but it was made by Elberfeld in 1916. There was also an ink stamp, B.A.XI. indicating issue by the Bekleidungsamt (clothing depot) of ArmeeKorps XI which was headquartered at Kassel in the state of Hesse, which is almost exactly in the centre of Germany.
George was obviously quite proud of his acquisition and he had the presence of mind to record this information on the flap for posterity. It says, “Mont St Quentin, Sgt. J.G. Robinson, 23Bttn. 1/9/1918”. There was another date but due to rubbing against the pistol it is no longer readable.
The original stripping tool was also still present in the holster but unfortunately the spare magazine was not. My assumption is that it had probably been dropped on the battlefield on September 1st during a magazine change, just before George shot the German carrying and using the Luger.
All serial numbers are matching and the pistol is in very good to excellent condition. In fact when some old grease was removed and the barrel swiped clean it appears the Luger had hardly ever been used. Perhaps our German never got the chance.
The Luger's original owner
There is a possibility that this German soldier was a member of the 94th Infantry Regiment who were the main opponent facing the 23rd Battalion on this day. Also in action against George and his mates were the 96th Infantry Regiment, but slightly off to the southern side of Mont St Quentin. Due to a high concentration of German machine gunners during this battle George could possibly have taken this Luger from one of them as MG crews were issued side arms on a lavish scale.
George was already a decorated soldier well before the action in which he souvenired the Luger. He had been awarded the Military Medal for his actions at Noreuil on 20 March 1917. He had seen action before and the enemy up close and personal, but something must have impelled him to pick this one up and keep it. It was a common enough practice in the First Australian Imperial Force (AIF) to take souvenirs from the enemy when that enemy no longer had a use for them. This especially extended to handguns, being so concealable, and they were also highly valued and could be traded with those in a rear area for something of value.
This practice of taking something from a person you had personally killed is something I will not try to psychoanalyse here but sufficient evidence suggests it is a common practice in wartime. I know it is. My grandfather did it on the Somme.
A brave Australian soldier
What sort of man was young George? From perusing his records held at the AWM and the National Archives of Australia (NAA), he was your typical Digger. There was a little of the larrikin in him, but he only got “crimed” once. He was a brave soldier and cool under fire as seen by the award of his MM. Obviously he was a good soldier as he rose steadily through the ranks and possibly could have risen higher if not for frequent bouts of sickness.
George Robinson was born near Kyabram in Victoria. His attestation papers (of which there are two on file), show him attesting on 20 July 1915 at Melbourne. He was 5’8.5” tall, weight 10lb 3oz; had a chest expansion of 33-35”, and was of fair complexion with brown eyes and dark brown hair. He gave his age as 21 years and eight months old. No previous military service.
What happened between there and his next attestation on 6 January 1916 at Seymour camp is not known, but he is now 22 years and three months old. He is now 5’9”and 10lb 10 oz and chest 35-37” A small chest expansion could get a man rejected for service in 1915 so that may be the reason.
George’s occupation was listed as Farmer. He was single. His next of kin was his father William Robinson, Deakin Post Office, Tongala, Victoria. His religion was Methodist. He joined the 10th reinforcements to the 23rd Battalion at Broadmeadows Camp just outside Melbourne where he became 4178 Private JG Robinson. After just two months training in how to be a soldier he embarked at Melbourne on HMAT Wiltshire (A-18) on 7.3.16. His only “crime” was committed on 30 March 1916 while at sea. He absented himself from a route march around the ship till 8pm that evening. He probably couldn’t see the sense in marching around in circles. He was awarded eight days forfeiture of pay and seven days confined to barracks.
George joined his battalion in France on 7 August 1916. The winter of 1916-17 was one of the worst on record and many Diggers went down with medical complaints. Frost bite and trench foot were prevalent and many lost their toes. George was in and out of hospital between November 1916 and January 1917 with diarrhoea, bronchitis and mumps but returned to the battalion on 20 February 1917. He was promoted Corporal on 14 March 1917. He was awarded the Military Medal for his actions at Noreuil on 20 March 1917. Noreuil was a precursor to the even more disastrous Battle for Bullecourt which followed in April.
The attack on Noreuil by the 21st and 23rd Battalions was conceived by General Gellibrand at very short notice. It was ill conceived, ill planned and used already weary troops with no artillery support across open ground in daylight. Casualties were heavy and a fighting withdrawal was ordered. Casualties for the two attacking battalions were 13 officers and 318 Other Ranks including 50 missing. Many of the missing were in fact killed in action and some of their bodies recovered later. To make matters worse it started snowing!
Four Military Medals were awarded to the 23rd Battalion for this action - all to Lewis gunners. On page 112 of Ron Austin’s book Forward Undeterred he quotes, “if it were not for the gallant efforts of C.S.M. John Cox and Lewis gunners such as Lance Corporals Patrick Fitzgerald, Thomas Heath, Henry Pitts and Private George Robinson throughout the morning, the withdrawal would have resulted in even heavier casualties”.
George’s recommendation for the MM (recommended 24 March 1917), and signed off by Gellibrand states:
On the 20th of March, under very heavy rifle and M.G. fire, he took his machine gun into position and succeeded in preventing an enemy M.G. from being bought into action. Later in the same action he, at great personal risk, got into position and scattered an enemy bombing party.
We can see George was a very proficient Lewis gunner who exposed himself to extreme danger in order to protect his mates which is in the highest traditions of the Australian Army. Obviously his talents did not go unnoticed nor unrewarded and he was promoted to Sergeant on 17 August 1917, and granted 14 days leave. It was the only leave he got before he returned home to Australia in 1919.
On the 9th of November George was admitted to a Field Ambulance station. His condition was serious enough that he was sent to Norfolk General Hospital in the UK with inflamed glands in the groin. George spent time in several hospitals and at the Australian Command Depots at Hurdcott and Sutton Veny while recuperating. He rejoined his battalion in France on 15 August 1918, just in time to take part in the combined attack on Peronne and Mont St Quentin which would be one of the A.I.F.’s crowning achievements of the war.
The end of the War for 'JG'
George stayed in France after the Armistice, and finally left France on 11 April 1919, disembarking at Southhampton the next day. From here he went into camp at Sutton Veny with other Diggers waiting to get home. He embarked at Devonport on the ship Rio Negro for repatriation to Australia. He disembarked at Melbourne and was discharged in the 3rd Military District on 28 September 19.
George’s medal entitlement of the British War Medal and Victory Medal were sent to him in Rushworth Rd, Kyabram in 1923. He was also sent the GRI badge in 1926 which would suggest he was suffering from a war related illness. This is also known variously as The Silver Wound Badge, Services Rendered Badge and other titles, and was awarded to men incapacitated due to their service.
George died on 12 November 1949 aged 55, ironically the day after Remembrance Day.
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