Saturday, May 21, 2022

The Australian Souvenir King of World War I

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Warwick O’Neill, Military Historian

War is a terrible thing. It destroys lives, livelihoods, whole swathes of countryside are laid to waste, usually for no great ideal, and those who fight in it usually receive the least benefit from the outcome. There are very few upsides to war. But one very faint silver lining is that most wars tend to throw up personalities of the type you just don’t see in peace time. People who, for that short period, capture the imaginations of their countrymen for whatever reason. Maybe they’re a particularly gifted sniper like Billy Sing, an un-military yet successful leader like Pompey Elliot or they have the quiet heroism of Weary Dunlop.

Or it could be the notorious Australian Souvenir King of World War I, John ‘Barney’ Hines.

Shortly after their arrival on the Western Front in 1916, Australian troops gained a reputation for being pretty adept at relieving German prisoners of their personal belongings. While a group of Aussie’s were busy ‘ratting’ a German shortly after his capture, the German said “you Australians are strange soldiers. You steal even as you fight.”

So for one man in particular to rise above the general populace of souvenir hunters was no mean feat. But rise above is exactly when Barney Hines managed to do.

Technically speaking he was a Pom. But even more technically speaking, he was a German. Born Johannes Heim in Liverpool in 1878 to German parents, he served in the British Army and the Royal Navy before turning up quite regularly in New Zealand’s legal system.

His first introduction to the Magistrate was in 1906 where he pleaded guilty to threatening behaviour after having a bit of a blue with another bloke. At the hearing Police Sub Inspector Black said that Hines is ‘one of the worst men in town.’

He was again in front of the judge in 1908, charged with theft, and he was sentenced to nine months at His Majesties pleasure. He appeared again in 1909 charged with assault and obscene language, in 1910 with breaking and entering and again in 1911 charged with theft and consorting with thieves. For the 1911 offences Hines spent two years as a guest of the state. But apart from all that he was a well-behaved young gentleman.

Anyway, eventually John Hines did what many a New Zealander of shady character has done, he jumped across the ditch and lobbed in Australia arriving in August 1915 and almost immediately he joined the AIF, telling the recruiter that he was 28 years old. Now I’m the first to admit that I’m pretty bad when it comes to the mathematical arts, but by my calculations in 1915 Hines would’ve been in the region of 37. But there was a tradition of turning a blind eye to these kinds of things back then.

One thing he couldn’t hide though, was a rather delicate medical condition and by January 1916, the AIF said thanks but no thanks and he was discharged medically unfit. By ‘delicate medical condition’, I mean the old grapes of wrath, the roids or more accurately haemorrhoids, a malady which would follow him throughout his service. No wonder his superiors thought he was a pain in the arse. Buddum tish.

Not to be denied though, he re-enlisted in August 1916. By this stage, the AIF had gone through Gallipoli, and the battle of Pozieres was in full swing with all the horrors and casualties that created. Medical standards were lowered and Hines was on his way to France to join the 45th Battalion. Just as an interesting aside, on his enlistment medical record it appears that Hines had a number of tattoos, one being a flower pot on his abdomen. I wonder how the German troops he would encounter would’ve felt knowing they were being looted by a bloke with a flower pot tattoo.

Anyway, I digress.

Hines finally made it to the Western Front in March 1917 and with barely enough time to get his bearings he joined his battalion in the Battle of Messines in June. It seems he took to war like a duck to water. During the battle he captured 60 Germans after storming a pill box, throwing grenades inside to subdue the occupants. The records don’t show if he helped himself to any of their possessions, but it’s a fair bet he lightened their load to some degree.

Shortly after, on 7th June he received a gunshot wound to the right shoulder and was evacuated to the hospital at Etaples for initial treatment and then moved back further to the 24th General Hospital in Harve.

The wound must not have been too serious though, as on 13 July he was charged with overstaying his leave pass, staying out on the town until 5:00am when we was supposed to be tucked up in bed by 9:30. His outing cost him five day’s pay.

By 17th July he was back with the Battalion and in September was heavily involved in the fighting at Polygon Wood. It was here that he began to develop his notoriety as the Souvenir King. The Official Australian War Photographer, Frank Hurley, took a photo of Hines with some of his takings.

Hines is shown sitting outside a dugout wearing a German forage cap known as a Feldmutze. Arrayed around him is a German steel helmet, a few belts of ammunition, stick grenades, a rifle, an artillery shell and all sorts of smaller personal equipment, all personally sequestered by the man himself. A rumour going around at the time the photo was published states that the Kaiser himself had seen the photo and had become so enraged he offered a substantial reward to any German soldier who killed Hines. It was just a furphy, but a good one though.

Photo: courtesy Warwick O’Neill

It was claimed that Hines killed more enemy soldiers than any other man in the AIF. Again this is probably just another myth which sprang up around him. I’m pretty sure no one was keeping score of individual kills across the entire five divisions. Suffice to say, when John Hines went into battle, he was the sort of bloke you wanted on your side.

In an interview the 45th Battalion’s commander, Arthur Allen, described Hines as “a tower of strength to the battalion … while he was in the line.” Another officer described him as being “two pains in the neck”.

A quick flick through his service record gives a good indication of why he might be described as such. Even before leaving Australia he received his first charge in November 1916 with being absent. In January 1917, absent. As previously stated when he was wounded in June 1917 he was charged with being absent and making entries in his pay book. In September 1917 he was charged with being absent from parade, November 1917 absent again, April 1918 drunkenness and absent. There was even a claim that he was caught robbing a bank vault at Amiens in 1918 but this doesn’t show up in his record. It seems that military authority never really succeeded in reigning him in.

In May of 1918 Hines was wounded for the second time with what I interpret as a shrapnel wound to the scalp and an undetermined gas injury. He was transferred to the base hospital in Harfleur for treatment of the scalp wound with no further mention of the gas. Hines didn’t know it at the time, but he had seen the last of the front line. In July 1918 he was determined to be unfit for service, not because of the wound or the possible gas injury but, once again, for haemorrhoids.

Post war life wasn’t kind to Hines. As commonly happens, those who make their reputation in war, struggle when the war is over. Another example of a good soldier making a bad civilian.

For 40 years after his return he lived in a humpy on the outskirts of the Sydney suburb of Mt Druitt. His home, for lack of a better word, was made from cloth bags and whatever he could find to give it some structure. He built a fence around it and here he displayed some of the German helmets he had souvenired from the war.

He was unable to secure full time work, but made ends meet by doing odd jobs and occasionally selling one of his precious souvenirs to supplement his army pension. The famous photo of him at Polygon Wood ensured that his name, if not the man himself, was kept in the public eye. In the Returned Services League Reveille magazine, his less than favourable living conditions were shown and a few donations were sent his way and his pension was doubled.

This turned out to be a bad thing though, as the increased income made him ineligible for relief work during the depression and so he was still basically confined to his little humpy. But always a walking contradiction, the rough and ready soldier of the battlefields, who the little kiddies of Mr Druitt were terrified of, regularly headed into town to the Repatriation Hospital to give away some of the fresh vegies from his garden to the soldiers being treated there.

In 1939, with the German invasion of Poland, World War II kicked off and Hines saw for himself an opportunity to get back to probably the only thing he was actually good at apart from absconding – fighting. In his 60’s by this stage he attempted to join the Second AIF, but unsurprisingly he was rejected.

On the 11th February 1943, the Nepean Times ran an article under the heading “Souvenir King. Veteran Still Wants To Fight.” It went on to say “being unsuccessful in several attempts to join the 2nd AIF, Barney Hines (now 64), stowed away on one of the boats of the first convoy.” He was dragged before now Major General Allen (his old 45th Battalion Commander). Allen told him that this was a young man’s war and Hines was shown the gangway before the ship sailed. 

John ‘Barney’ Hines died on 28 January 1958 at the Concord Repatriation Hospital in his mid 80’s and was buried in Rookwood Cemetery in an unmarked grave until 1971 when the Mount Druitt RSL sub-branch chipped in to purchase a headstone. In 2002 a monument was erected in his honour in the Mount Druitt Waterholes Remembrance Garden.

So what kind of person was John Barney Hines? He was definitely a bit of a ratbag. But he marched to the beat of his own drum and certainly had a larrikin streak to him which I find appealing. But on other occasions I’m pretty sure I would’ve been sitting back, shaking my head thinking “who the hell’s this clown”. He was the sort of bloke most commanders would love to have in their Battalion, but at the same time he’d have them ripping their hair out in frustration. He may not have been the type of person any army wanted, but without doubt he was the sort of person every army needs. Cheers Barney.   

Other military items by the author, Warwick O’Neill, can be found at: https://www.australianmilitaryhistorypodcast.com/
You can read more about the author, Warwick O’Neill, here.

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