World War I hero honoured at a ceremony in Canberra

At the Australian War Memorial in Canberra: Phil Wilkins, Helen Heath and David Wilkins before the photograph of their uncle, Philip Wilkins, shot and killed on the Western Front a century before in World War I.
At the Australian War Memorial in Canberra: Phil Wilkins, Helen Heath and David Wilkins before the photograph of their uncle, Philip Wilkins, shot and killed on the Western Front a century before in World War I.

Late on a serene afternoon in Canberra, with swallows flying over the Pool of Reflection and about the Eternal Flame, a moving ceremony to honour the memory of a beloved uncle took place at the Australian War Memorial.

For two brothers, David Wilkins of Sydney, and Phil Wilkins of Forster, it was a most significant moment. With them were Philip’s niece, Ms Helen Heath, and her husband, David.

There are moments in life cherished and never forgotten, marriage and child birth foremost, but this was an occasion where placing a wreath of red roses beneath the large photograph of an uncle who died on the Western Front a century ago was as emotional as meeting him personally.

Every afternoon for the next 300 years and more will be needed for each man and woman lost in war to be honoured.

Phil Wilkins

By some unearthly means, the experience became an initial encounter with a stranger, to come face to face with a man for a few moments, privately, personally, through tears of pride and joy, who survived Gallipoli’s perils only to be gunned down in France near the Hindenburg Line.

Private Philip Wilkins was born in Bombala on September 13, 1893, and grew up in Double Bay. He was educated at Fort Street High School and Sydney Grammar School, qualifying as an analytical chemist at Sydney Technical School.

At the Australian War Memorial in Canberra: Phil Wilkins, Helen Heath and David Wilkins before the photograph of their uncle, Philip Wilkins, shot and killed on the Western Front a century before in World War I.

At the Australian War Memorial in Canberra: Phil Wilkins, Helen Heath and David Wilkins before the photograph of their uncle, Philip Wilkins, shot and killed on the Western Front a century before in World War I.

When World War I broke out, he enlisted on December 8, 1914; one of three brothers who served for Australia.

He joined Australia’s first field ambulance and spent time in Egypt, before being deployed to Turkey, serving as an ambulance bearer in the most hazardous of all positions, treating and recovering injured soldiers on the cliffs of Gallipoli.

It was in a similar role that John Simpson Kirkpatrick earned fame among the ANZACs for his fearless and compassionate devotion to duty in assisting stricken soldiers and carrying them to safety on the back of his donkey. He was fatally wounded in mid 1915.

With his health failing, Philip was evacuated back to Australia. He returned to the conflict, joining the infantry and fighting through the bitter 1916-17 winter with the Third Battalion in France.

On April 9, 1917, following heavy fighting, Australia’s Second and Third Battalions recaptured the heavily fortified, German-held outpost town of Hermies, a victory which came with many casualties. Private Wilkins was one of the fatalities.

At the Australian War Memorial in Canberra: Phil Wilkins and David Wilkins before the photograph of their uncle, Philip Wilkins, shot and killed on the Western Front a century before in World War I.

At the Australian War Memorial in Canberra: Phil Wilkins and David Wilkins before the photograph of their uncle, Philip Wilkins, shot and killed on the Western Front a century before in World War I.

He was laid to rest in the Beaumetz Cross Roads Military Cemetery, aged 23.

It was while under fire in the horrific Battle of Pozieres in France that Charles Bean, Australia’s official World War I historian, realised Australian servicemen who fell in war must be recognised by the nation.

It was Bean’s inspiration which led to the construction of the National War Memorial in their honour in Canberra.

There, decades later, beneath the soaring sandstone edifice, close by the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, two nephews paid their respects to their late father and ex-war time tunneller, Lieutenant Laurence George Wilkins, who died peacefully in Sydney at 95.

They also paid tribute to their uncle, Philip, who fought and died valiantly in a foreign field at the young age of 23. They listened and remembered as the Last Post played in his honour.

Every afternoon in Canberra, save for Christmas Day, a ceremony is held for one of Australia’s serviceman who has given his life for the nation in the field of battle. 

The ceremony remembers and celebrates the fallen hero as a mark of respect for his family and loved ones. Every one of those afternoons for the next 300 years and more will be needed for each man and woman lost to be so honoured.