Restoration Of The Grave Of Henri Hemene Tovell

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Henri Hemene Tovell was a young French orphan who was “adopted” by the men of No 4 Squadron Australian Flying Corps during their service in France in World War I. Henri was eventually “smuggled” to Australia where he was later formally adopted by Mr Tim Tovell (who had planned and conducted Henri’s journey to Australia). Tragically, Henri was killed in a motor cycle accident while returning to the Laverton Air Base.

Although not formally a member of the Air Force, he was accorded a military style funeral and the Australian Flying Corp erected a striking monument over his grave at the Fawkner Cemetery in Melbourne.

With the passage of time the grave site and monument suffered at the hands of vandals and general lack of attention. Ultimately the Air Force Association accepted responsibility for the grave site and recently instigated a project to renovate Henri’s grave site.

Aided by a contribution from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the grave site has now been restored.

During the restoration planning process the Association was able to contact Mrs Edith Lock, the adoptive sister of Henri. Mrs Lock was able to confirm that the quote selected for the new Headstone were words that had a special significance for Henri and her Father, and believes that is what her father would have wanted.

Subsequent to the foregoing “Argus” article, Henri was formally adopted by Tim Tovell. An account of this and other events in the short life of Henri was published in 2002 by “Penguin Books” in “The Young Digger” by Anthony Hill (the book is still available). More information about the book is available on the Penguin Books website, accessible by clicking on the graphic on the right.

A Happy Ending

Henri Tovell’s history, as it was known to members of 4 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, commences in January of 1915 at the small French town of Seclin. The boy was then aged five years, and he lived with his mother, sisters, and his brother.

His father was a French soldier in the front line. Early that year while the father was home on leave, a bombardment by a German heavy artillery unit destroyed his home and killed the other members of his family.

Homeless, Henri wondered from Seclin miles away until he was taken and cared for by a French howitzer battery. Three months later he was wounded and admitted to hospital. After discharge he wandered away again, and joined a field artillery brigade. Recovering from a second wound he found his way to the Royal Flying Corps.

Via a succession of British units Henri joined 4 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps on Christmas Day 1918. Adopted as the squadron mascot, he became know to the members of the squadron as “Digger”.

He was smuggled to Australia, by Air Mechanic Tim Tovell, with the connivance of officers of the squadron (including a Capt G Jones, subsequently Sir George Jones KBE CB DFC, Chief of the Air Staff (1942-1952)).

Permission was obtained for Henri to immigrate and he was adopted by Tovell and his wife. Henri could not be naturalized until he turned twenty-one years of age and he could not join the RAAF while he remained a French citizen. However, the Air Force engaged him as a civilian apprentice at Point Cook pending his naturalization.

Seven months before the date of his majority Henri died as a result of injuries sustained when his motor bike and a taxi collided outside the Windsor Hotel on the night of May 23, 1928. The Argus newspaper recorded that Henri was accorded “a semi-official” funeral on the 25th.

No volley was fired nor was the Last Post sounded, because Henri was not formally a member of the Air Force. However, his coffin was draped with the colours of the Australian Flying Corps, uniformed airmen were his pall-bearers and his coffin was conveyed to Fawkner Cemetery on an RAAF wagon and trailer. Nine former members of 4 Squadron and the Secretary of the Air Board attended, but the speed with which the funeral was arranged did not allow the family to travel from Queensland to be present.

The Squadron members decided that a memorial was required and with the assistance of a public appeal through The Argus an impressive sandstone monument was erected in 1932. It was topped by a statuette of a boy dressed as Henri had been dressed when he came to the Squadron in 1918. The family was not made aware of this and learned of it six weeks after the event.

During the 1950’s the statuette was stolen and the grave vandalized. The Tovell family repaired the damage to the grave but the cost of replacing the statuette was beyond them. Subsequently, the sandstone monument deteriorated and the ground subsided, so that the monument leaned. The condition of the sandstone was such that restoration was impractical.

The Air Force Association Victoria received a number of approaches to repair the grave decided that a new, modest memorial would be appropriate. The Association and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs jointly funded a new kerb and ledger, the inscription on which was approved by Henri’s surviving sister and includes words which his father had wanted on the original grave.

On Sunday, 29 November, Digger’s grave was re-dedicated in a service conducted by Chaplain Squadron Leader Keith Lanyon, in the presence of the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the Hon Alan Griffin, MP, members of the Tovell family, serving and former members of 4 Squadron RAAF, including the current CO, WGCDR David Paddison, Mr Peter Colliver, President of Air Force Association Victoria, Mr Leo Hammond, representing the Deputy Commissioner for Veterans’ Affairs, WOFF Gina Goninon, representing CDR-AFTG, CO 21 Squadron, SQNLDR Marcelle Mitting and members of Air Force Association Victoria.

Digger’s adoptive sister, Mrs Edith Lock, now 89 years of age, and her niece, Sally Elliot, were flown to Melbourne by the Air Force Association, niece Marilyn Elliot travelled from the Gold Coast to attend and nephew Rick and his wife Carol travelled from country Victoria.

Prior to the service, Mrs Lock kissed a bouquet of roses before placing it upon the grave. During the service, Mrs Lock spoke eloquently of her “big brother” and expressed her gratitude to the Association and the Department for making possible the restoration of the grave.

Speaking after the service she thanked the Association for arranging the service and her transportation and accommodation. Mrs Lock observed that during one’s lifetime many memories are created, but she said that the memory of the re-dedication of Digger’s grave was one of the happiest occasions in her life and the memory of it would remain with her forever.

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