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24 August 2011

7591 Private Eustace John Bews of Moonta

Eustace John Bews' birth was not recorded on the public register, but it appears that he was born in Wallaroo on 1 May 1886. His next of kin on his personnel record is listed as his mother, Mrs Jessie Bews of Moonta.

Not much is known about Johnny's activities before the war, but it appears he had a difficult relationship with alcohol and/or the law, being convicted for drunkenness on half-a-dozen occasions, along with a couple of convictions for theft. In May 1915, he had moved from Yorke Peninsula to the south-east when he was convicted of shop-breaking and sentenced by the Mount Gambier Circuit Court to six months hard labour .

He must have returned to Yorke Peninsula following his release from prison, as he gave his address as Moonta when he enlisted for the first time at Port Pirie on 21 May 1917. He stated that he had previously been rejected for enlistment due to the state of his teeth, but there is no other record of this earlier attempt to enlist. After it was decided that his teeth might be made serviceable by the fitting of plates, he was accepted and sent to Mitcham Camp in Adelaide. He failed to report until a week later, and promptly went absent without leave after a week in camp. After a third absence without leave, Johnny was sentenced to 14 days detention in Fort Glanville and the Army also docked his pay. Released from detention, he almost immediately went absent again whilst under open arrest. He was discharged on 1 August 1917 after 71 days service, as not likely to become an efficient soldier. His conduct was described as 'bad'.

Six weeks later on 10 September 1917, an Arthur Walker of Hobart approached the recruiting officer at Adelaide and was enlisted. On 16 August of the previous year, Arthur Thomas Walker of the 50th Battalion was posted missing in action (presumed dead) after the Battle of Mouquet Farm. Like Johnny Bews, Arthur Thomas Walker was an aboriginal man, also born at Wallaroo a couple of years before Johnny. It is almost certain that Johnny had known Arthur Thomas Walker, and adopted his name as a means of re-enlisting. On 24 October 1917, Johnny Bews must have had second thoughts about adopting a dead man's name, as his records were amended to show his real name and details, including the fact that he had been previously discharged. He was allocated to the 25th reinforcements to the 10th Battalion and embarked six days later at Melbourne.

Johnny disembarked at Devonport, England two days after Christmas 1917 with the rest of his reinforcements and was admitted to hospital with the mumps. True to form, he would not keep to his sick bed, and broke out of hospital for 24 hours, resulting in another disciplinary charge. He underwent three months training with the 2nd Training Brigade at Sutton Veny near Warminster in Wiltshire, and eventually left England for France on 1 April 1918. After passing through the divisional administrative depot, he marched in to the 10th Battalion on 10 April 1918 as it marched into the village of Rainneville in the Somme. His records indicate he was allocated to C or 'Cork' Company.

Within days, the 10th Battalion, along with the rest of the 3rd Brigade and 1st Division were sent by train to Amiens to counter the German Spring Offensive. They were then thrown into the line near Hazebrouck in Flanders to conduct a night counter-attack at Meteren. The operation was a costly failure, with the battalion suffering nearly 80 casualties, many of them from C Company.

Johnny reported sick whilst the unit was out of the line in May, but returned in time to go back into the line near Merris in late May. He went absent without leave once again in the next rest period out of the line, but returned in time to take part in several successful minor operations during June and July 1918.

On 29 July 1918, Johnny Bews was wounded in the right hand during the 10th Battalion's capture of Merris. After a long stint in hospital in England, he was embarked on the Shropshire on 1 April 1919 and disembarked in Adelaide on 14 May 1919. He was discharged on 6 June 1919.

He lived in Gladstone for a couple of years in the early 1920's before returning to Yorke Peninsula. He fell foul of the law again in 1924, this time for 'supplying alcohol to Aborigines' under the provisions of the Licensing Act. It is notable that his co-defendants included two other returned soldiers, Arthur Weetra and Lewis Power, who were respectively charged with drinking and possession of alcohol which they were prohibited from doing by the law. From the vantage point of nearly 90 years later, it seems ridiculous that three returned Australian soldiers could ever have be charged by the police for having a drink together, but these were the laws that applied to Aboriginal people for many years. It appears from the fact that Johnny was charged with 'supplying alcohol to Aborigines', that he was not subject to the full restrictions applying to those people considered 'Aborigines' under legislation at the time.

Johnny Bews was a passionate advocate for the welfare, protection and citizenship and voting rights of Aboriginal people, having letters to the editor published in The Advertiser on several occasions in the late 1920's and 1930's . He continued to have run-ins with the law throughout the 1930's, including spending six months in prison for entering an Aboriginal reserve. In 1934 he was charged with possession of alcohol, but neatly argued that as he had been previously classed as a 'white man' by the law over entering the reserve, he could not now be liable to be treated as an 'Aborigine half-caste' who was not permitted to have alcohol in his possession. The police prosecutor promptly withdrew the charge .

He continued to write to The Advertiser, and during the Second World War advocated full citizenship rights for returned Aboriginal soldiers. In this he was supported by a fellow Aboriginal veteran of the First World War, Herb Milera . It appears from public records that he never married and is not recorded as the father of any children. He is recorded as working at a hotel in 1944.

Eustace John Bews died at the Royal Adelaide Hospital on 20 August 1949 and was buried in the Australian Imperial Force cemetery (Kendrew Oval Row: 17 Site: 26) on West Terrace. His name is inscribed on an Honour Board at Point Pearce on the Yorke Peninsula, and will be included on the Register of Aboriginal Veterans of South Australia.

Photograph: Ian Smith (Grave of Eustace John Bews, AIF Cemetery West Terrace Adelaide)

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