The tiny French boy, Honore Hemene, was invited to join Australian Squadron Four’s table and earned his meal by captivating the airmen with his incredible story of survival.
It was an act of kindness that would go far beyond a meal – it changed the course of his life.
French orphan Honore Hemene, aka Henri Tovell, aka ‘Little Digger’, (left) with Australian brothers Ted and Tim Tovell, who both served in the Australian air force, in 1918
Private Tim Tovell (pictured right) shows the oat sack he used to smuggle French orphan Honore ‘Henri’ Hemene in to reach England, on the way home to Australia in 1918
‘Henri’ as the Aussies called him, explained that his whole family – mother, sisters and brother – were killed during the war when his home in Seclin was bombed by German artillery.
He was seven years old at the time and his father, a soldier, died earlier in the war on the Western Front.
Henri survived on his own for four years by attaching himself to various French and British units and scavenging food from troops near the battlefields of northern Belgium.
But the members of Australian Air Force Squadron Four warmed to the boy, who was 11 by the time they met him.
He became their unofficial mascot, a joker and rat-catcher in the barracks, and was even taken for daredevil joyrides on the squadron’s Sopwith Camel biplanes.
Eventually they dubbed him ‘Little Digger’.
The Little Digger, then aged 12, on the deck of the ship Kaisar-i-Hind with two unidentified passengers, which arrived in Australia on January 31, 1919
Honore (Henri) Tovell (centre) boxing at Hurdcott Camp, with two unidentified members of the Australian Imperial Force
With his wartime service over, Private Tovell smuggled Henri, who had begun to see him as a father figure, on the boat to England in a sack.
When it came time to embark on the long trip back to Australia in late 1918, Henri was again smuggled aboard by Tim and his brother Ted Tovell, this time in a fancy dress basket.
Although discovered, he was allowed to stay and disembark in Australia when the ship Kaisar-i-Hind arrived in Australia on January 31, 1919.
In his book Young Digger, writer Anthony Hill wrote that a priest once interrogated Mr Tovell about Henri.
Honore ‘Little Digger’ Hemene – who was only 11 when befriended by Australian forces – poses in a uniform made especially for him the distinctive ‘slouch’ hat that Australian Imperial Forces wore
Henri Tovell at 21 with the motorbike he loved – and eventually died with after a traffic accident
Ted Tovell (left) and his wife Gertie, became like parents to young Henri, who grew up with them in Queensland before he moved to Melbourne
‘Henri was granted permission to land in Australia and went to Brisbane to live with Tovell and his family.’
‘But what do you think you’re doing, man?’ the priest asked Tim.
‘I think I’m giving him a chance in life, sir. A better chance with my family than ever he’ll have in an institution here… one, as you say, among thousands.’
Mr Tovell and his wife Gert raised Henry in Queensland and he joined the Royal Australian Air Force in 1923, while in his mid-teens.
Henri applied to the Australian Government for naturalisation in 1928 – but died in a tragic motorbike accident before it was granted.
He died after being hit by a taxi while riding his motorbike on Spring Street, while returning to Laverton air base on Macy 23, 1928. He was 21.
Despite not being a member of the air force, Henri was buried with military honours and a monument was erected over his grave at the Fawkner Cemetery in Melbourne.