Darwin war history
By Norman Cramp, Director of Darwin Military Museum.
Alexander (aka: Alex) McKinnon was born at Charlotte Waters, South Australia, in 1889, the son of James McKinnon and an Aboriginal Woman named Cobb. Little is known of Alex’s younger life, but it is known that his father later married a Caucasian woman named Alice, who then became Alex’s step-mother.
Alex was twenty-six years and eleven months of age, single and working as a ‘Station Hand’ when he enlisted in the 1st AIF at Adelaide on 3rd May 1916. At that time, he nominated his (step) mother, Alice McKinnon, as his next of kin but later nominated his biological (natural) mother, ‘Cobb’, as the beneficiary in his Last Will and Testament. Alex stood five feet and four inches tall, weighed 130 pounds with a complexion stated to be ‘Aboriginal – Half caste’. He had black hair dark brown eyes and was of the Methodist faith.
After enlisting and completing basic training, he was attached to the 43rd Infantry Battalion AIF and embarked on the transport ship A70 Ballarat in Adelaide for England on 12th August 1916. He disembarked at Devonport, United Kingdom, on 30th September 1916 and underwent further training prior to proceeding to France (ex-Southampton) on 25th November 1916. After arriving in France, he was taken ill on 31st December 1916 and was admitted to the 7th Army General Hospital 6th January 1917.
He re-joined the 43rd Battalion on 29th January 1917 and apparently continued to serve in France. He found himself in trouble with the Authorities in 1917 when he went absent without leave (AWL) on two separate occasions that year. In March he absented himself between the hours of 12:30pm to 3pm for which he was sentenced to four days confined to barracks (CB) and in August he once again went AWL and was confined to barracks for 3 days.
It is unclear as to when he was transferred from France to Belgium, but he was serving in the latter country when he was killed in action on 4th October 1917. His body was never recovered from the field and, as such, he has no known grave. This being the case, he is commemorated in the Australian Section (L-Q) of the Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres, Belgium. He is also commemorated on the Darwin Cenotaph, The Esplanade, Darwin.
Following his death, his personal effects were packaged and returned to Australia on two separate cargoships. One package, that was shipped to his ‘mother’, Mrs. A. McKinnon, contained two books, a pipe, two bag handles, two handkerchiefs, an inkwell, a purse and two straps. The other consignment, that was shipped aboard the cargo/transport steamer Barunga, contained ‘Letters, Cards, Photos, Testament, Wallet’. This consignment never reached Australia, as the Barunga was sunk by a German submarine off the coast of England in 1918.
Besides losing Alex and his personal effects, there was more to come for Mrs. Alice McKinnon, who, by the way, was signing documents as ‘Mary McKinnon’ in 1922. On 6th July 1921, Alice McKinnon wrote to Major McLean, Officer In Charge (OIC), Base Records, Melbourne, seeking information on Alex’s demise as she had only ‘heard of is [Alex’s] death recently’. She stated that Alex’s mother and father were both deceased and that, ‘I am left with 8 children and am depending on the Government for help’. Alice/Mary McKinnon was not only seeking information on Alex’s death, she was also seeking information on, and hoping for, the Commonwealth government to pay her the War Gratuity owed as a result of Alex’s service and death.
On the 15th July 1921, the Officer in Charge (OIC) of Base Records, Melbourne wrote to ‘Headquarters, 4th District Base, Keswick, Adelaide’ to advising that Alex had nominated his mother, Mrs. Alice McKinnon, as his next of kin when he enlisted - but his Will ‘show her [his mother] as ‘Cobb’ of Mount Dare via Charlotte Waters, Northern Territory, aboriginal’. The letter also advised that ‘Mrs. A McKinnon, of New Town, Kadina, South Australia, claims to be the soldier’s step-mother, and states that his father and mother are both deceased’. The OIC Base Records requested information on any living brother(s) or sister(s) of Alexander McKinnon.
In April 1922, the 4th District Commandant wrote to the OIC Base Records, Melbourne, stating that the matter of War Gratuity payment for Alex had not been settled and that, although ‘Cobb’ had ‘applied for the Gratuity, it is improbable same will be paid to her’. He went on to say that, ‘It is understood the amount may be paid to the Protector of Aborigines in this State [SA]’. The matter of issuing Alex’s war medals was raised in the letter, with the Commandant stating that he was ‘of the opinion that the WAR MEDALS would not be valued by “Cobb” and would suggest they be awarded to Mrs. Mary McKinnon, Stepmother, of Newtown, KADINA’.
On 17th May 1922, the AIF wrote to Mrs. M McKinnon, advising they would ‘hand over to you the war medals etc of the late No. 2230 Private A. McKinnon’, but ‘only on the distinct understanding that they will be preserved with due care as memorials of his service’. In June that year, the AIF wrote to Mrs. McKinnon advising her that the war medals awarded to Alex, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal, had been posted to her at her residential address at Newtown, Kadina, SA.
On the same day, the Commandant, 4th District Base, Adelaide, wrote to the OIC, Base Records, Melbourne advising that ‘the Gratuity of the late soldier [McKinnon] has been awarded to the aboriginal [sic] “COBB”, but has been paid to the Protector of Aboriginees [sic] in this State’. So, Alice/Mary McKinnon received Alex’s war medals, the government received the Gratuity and ‘Cobb’ received nothing!
Alexander McKinnon, one of a small number of Aboriginal men from the NT to serve, was the only indigenous person from the NT to lose his live in the Great War.
Darwin Military Museum
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Darwin Military Museum