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  • Claire Jordan

The Rescue of Little Digger

The best sort of Christmas story.

On Christmas Day 1918, the Australian Flying Corps’ No.4 Squadron had just sat down to Christmas lunch in the airmen’s mess at their station at Bickendorf, Germany.

Everyone was in a good mood; this was the first Christmas without the War to worry about in what seemed like forever.

Suddenly there appeared among them a small French boy; he was thin, cold and alone.

He told the Aussies his name was Honore but no one could pronounce that, so it was shortened to Henri, or even just Little Digger, with which he seemed quite happy.

His father had been killed in the first months of the War in 1914 and his mother and sister soon afterwards when a German shell landed on his house.

He had been wandering alone for the last four years, relying on the kindness of Allied units he ran into, careful to avoid the enemy, careful not to stay too long in one place in case he was handed over to the authorities and consigned to an orphanage.

He had no idea how old he was, where he was born or even when his birthday was.

There was likely not a dry eye in the mess by this point, hardened warriors reduced to tears at this small pale boy’s lonely resourcefulness.

They fell over themselves to give him their own turkey dinners and that Christmas, for the first time in his little life, he ate like a king.

The Aussie airmen would not let him wander on alone and adopted him as their mascot. They made him a small uniform and found him somewhere safe and warm to sleep. Happy and proud to be one of them, Henri helped his new friends in any way he could.

One particularly kind-hearted chap, air-mechanic Tim Tovell, took him under his gigantic wing and determined that when they went home to Australia the following spring, little Henri would go with them.

The British and French authorities were never going to agree to this, so they came up with a plan with Henri and when the time came, the Diggers gently carried him on board in a kit bag and concealed the boy in various empty sacks on the troopship until they were too far out to turn back.

It so happened that the Premier of Queensland was also on board that troopship steaming home; he got to hear of the little boy and was able to arrange the necessary paperwork.

Henri was adopted by Tim Tovell and his wife Gertie; his new family gave him a new birthday as well as a new life: 25th December.

Surely kindness can light even the darkest of places.

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