Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 7, 2016

Young Digger (2002, new edition 2016), by Anthony Hill

young-digger There has been such a plethora of military history books published during the WW1 centenary years that my eyes have started to glaze over when I come across another one, so readers with WW1-fatigue could be forgiven if they feel the same way about Young Digger.  But I was intrigued by the blurb even before I saw the cover with its engaging photo of a little kid in WW1 army uniform:

A small boy, an orphan of the First World War, wanders into the Australian airmen’s mess in Germany, on Christmas day in 1918. A strange boy, with an uncertain past and an extra-ordinary future, he became a mascot for the air squadron and was affectionately named ‘Young Digger’. And in one of the mot unusual incidents ever to emerge from the battlefields of Europe after the Great War, this solitary boy was smuggled back to Australia by air mechanic Tim Tovell, a man who cared for the boy so much that he was determined, however risky, to provide Young Digger with a new family and a new life in a new country, far from home.

It’s a book which I read with an uneasy mixture of interest and concern.  Written with admiration and respect for his subjects, Anthony Hill has obviously thoroughly researched the story of this boy, Henri Heremene Tovell, to create a poignant, often amusing story of his short life.  (Henri was killed in a motorcycle accident when he was only about 18).  It’s quite amazing to read about how this orphan wandered into the life of 4 Squadron Australia Flying Corps at Cologne because he liked the Aussie food better than the British, became its mascot, and was smuggled on and off ships as the men returned to Australia after the war.  But at the same time there’s a sense of unease, firstly because the values we have today would not countenance taking a child away from his own nationality and culture in such a cavalier way, and secondly because our sad awareness of sexual abuse raises alarm bells in any situation where a small boy is vulnerable amongst a company of men.  There is an innocence about this tale that sweeps these concerns under the carpet, and the author’s admiration for the soldiers who found ways to subvert the rules to get the boy to Australia is in the tradition of the ‘digger’ thumbing his nose at authority, though in this case it’s the French and British authorities because the Australian senior officers knew about it and turned a blind eye.  Still, I couldn’t help feeling doubtful about the entire episode.

(This sense of doubt was reinforced by a passage about new procedures for the voyage home that were put in place to prevent any reccurrence of the discreditable behaviour of Australian troops in Egypt when they were en route to Gallipoli.  These procedures were mocked by the author with these words: The nanny brigade was out in force.  I can well understand Australian men saying something like that in 1919.  I find the remark distasteful and dishonest when made in the light of knowledge about what that discreditable behaviour entailed in Cairo).

It would be giving the wrong impression to suggest that efforts were not made to reunite the boy with some family, and it is probably true that in the chaos of war, the destiny of most orphans lay with French nuns in an orphanage.  But according to Hill’s account there was a French woman who had lost her only son in the war and pleaded with them to let her have Henri and they refused.  In a way, it was understandable: Tim Tovell’s own son had died of polio while he was away, and he had taken Henri to his heart.  Throughout the account Hill reimagines conversations that must have taken place, and Young Digger implores the men to take him with them whenever there is a prospect that they might not.  But he was very young to make any such decision.  (He told Tovell that he was eleven, but he apparently looked more like a nine-year-old).

Most of the book is taken up with the story of escapades in France and the embarkation period in Britain, and it seems that little is known about how well Henri adapted to life in rural Queensland.  Though his accent flattened out he had occasional teasing about it and he had difficulty with written English.  It is sad to see him use the words that he had become a burden to the Tovells (times were tough during the Depression years) but there are some indications from RAAF records that he had a difficult adolescence while he was doing an apprenticeship in Melbourne.  When he was older there were administrative difficulties in establishing his age in order to achieve naturalisation (citizenship) and that impacted on his enlistment in the RAAF.   And sadly, because of the irregular circumstances of his family life, authorities were offhand about notifying the Tovell family after Henri died.

Eventually Tim Tovell, no writer himself, told his story to his neighbour Professor Cumbrae-Stewart of Queensland University, and these recollections were written up and later used as a basis for other accounts, along with newspaper feature articles from the time.  But apart from the summary in his application for naturalisation, (included in the Appendix) there is no account of Henri’s life in his own words.

Today when Australians exert themselves to research their family history with such enthusiasm, it is interesting to speculate on how a mature Henri Tovell might have reconciled his identity.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Anthony Hill (no relation)
Title: Young Digger
Publisher: Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, new edition 2016, first published 2002
ISBN: 9780670079292
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House

Available from Fishpond: Young Digger


  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  2. I, too, bought this book on the basis of the blurb but I haven’t got to it yet. I would also be uneasy about the potential sexual abuse of the boy.


    • I can understand how (since everything was kept quiet in those days and most people wouldn’t have known a thing about it) it wasn’t a concern back then (or if it was, it wasn’t talked about). But I think the fact that contemporary readers would think about it straight away as I did, and Hill doesn’t address it, shows the book’s origins as a children’s book.


  3. A difficult subject well reviewed! It’s amazing to think the author regarded it as uncontroversial, let alone dismissed concern about digger behaviour in Egypt.


    • The sanctification of the diggers is one of the worst aspects of Anzackery. I mean, ok, maybe it’s not fair to treat all soldiers as if they were involved in Cairo when maybe they as individuals had nothing to do with it, but I still think the Australian authorities were right to prevent the possibility of reccurrence.


  4. You are probably right about its origins in a children’s book – or that it’s written by an author who primarily writes children’s books, Lisa – given Hill’s oeuvre. However, I feel uncomfortable about assuming all men treat young boys badly. I don’t like the idea that this story AUTOMATICALLY rings alarm bells. None of the men I know would treat a young boy anything other than kindly, so why not these soldiers? Child sexual abuse is horrific, but it’s not the norm for most men. Perhaps in a biography he could have suggested it but do you have to suggest every possibility and permutation if the record shows no hint of trouble?

    The point about taking him from his culture is more concerning given what we know now because, while in those days the implications were not understood, there’s no guessing about fact in this case, that is, it’s a given that he WAS removed from his home country. Hill could legitimately have reflected on that, from the point of view of contemporary knowledge, but it would be wrong, I think, for him to criticise the soldiers from a 21st century perspective.


    • I know where you’re coming from Sue, and I’m also surrounded by wonderful men who are as disgusted by what’s been revealed lately as I am – so no, I don’t assume that all men behave in that way. However what we know from the Royal Commission is that we all have a responsibility to be alert to the possibility and to ensure that kids are not put in vulnerable situations, because so much abuse has occurred with the perpetrators held unaccountable for decades, and sometimes died before their crimes were revealed. In schools, for instance, it’s been policy for many years now that no teacher of either gender should ever be alone in a classroom with a child of either gender. It’s a sensible rule that does no harm and may have prevented harm though we will never know.
      Hence my point about the book’s origin as a children’s book. I think an historian writing about this for an adult audience would treat the story differently, and could address these issues that made me feel uneasy without judging C20th soldiers from a C21st perspective.


  5. I found this book to be a good story about men caring for a war orphan. Henri was more than their mascot, he was truly loved and the men did what they believed was best for him. Henri was a determined young boy and really loved his adopted family. I don’t think Henri was too young to decide that he wanted to go to Australia live. He had survived so much from the tragedy in France, and there was nothing there for him or family. I think if he had been forced to stay in France he would have kept running away, and would never have settled down to a ‘normal’ life. It was sad Henri died so young and his adopted family did not receive more information and his papers.


    • I expect this issue is being played out in various ways with orphans in war zones around the world even now. It’s a very complex issue.


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