John Hines, born Johannes Haym, was born in Liverpool, England on 11 October 1878 to German-Irish immigrants. Very little is known of his early life, save that at the age of 14, he saw Queen Victoria on her Jubilee Tour, and after seeing all the pomp and ceremony, left home to enlist in the British Army, only to have his mother protest for his return.
In 1895 Hines accepted the Queen’s Shilling and joined the King’s Liverpool Regiment, only to be deemed “non-Effective”. the following year he joined the Royal Navy, serving as a Stoker on the shore Installation HMS Victory II, He would go on to serve in the Boxer Rebellion and following a bought of malaria, he would be “discharged as objectionable”.
There is some inconsistency and discrepancies in his military service, with some accounts, including interviews with Hines himself on how long he was both in the Navy and Army. What is known is that he married Hannah Maher in 1899, and they would have two children together.
That same year, Hines would be working as a merchant mariner and travel to Capetown to join Discoll’s Scouts, a Reconnaissance Unit, then transferring to Kitchener’s Scouts, Kitchener’s Horse, Brabant’s Scouts, Remington’s Scouts and finally to the 1st Imperial Bushmen, an Australian Mounted Unit.
When the Imperial Bushmen returned to Australia in 1902, Hines followed them, and he promptly abandoned his family. What happened between 1902 and the outbreak of the First World War is a matter of conjecture, with his own accounts and official records placing him in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and ‘Every state of the United States of America. working various jobs and having several run-ins with the authorities.
In July 1915, Hines attempted to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force but was rejected on medical grounds. Not to be dissuaded, he would finally be accepted on 8 May 1916 and sent as reinforcements of the 45th Battalion.
As a soldier, Hines, according to his commanders, was a Tower of Strength to the 45th, while he was on the front line, out of it he caused a number of grey hairs for his superiors. For the men of the 45th, he was well regarded, even if they found some of his actions particularly erratic.
But as he was an effective soldier in the trenches, he was given a lot of liberties, preferring to go “Over the Top” with sandbags filled with Mills Bombs, a kind of hand grenade, instead of his Rifle and Bayonet, a weapon he would use with great efficiency. Considering how he was roughly the same height as Bull Allen, the thought of having a 5”10’ man charging at you throwing grenades at a whim is simply terrifying.
This efficiency would lend itself to the kind of warfare experienced by the Australians on the Western Front, with the German forces regularly employing Concrete pillboxes and bunkers to reinforce their positions. During the Battle of Messines, Hines came across a German pillbox, and while taunting the Germans failed to bring them out, he threw a number of grenades inside, killing some and taking others prisoner, allegedly including a General. In one of these encounters, he reportedly killed 63 German soldiers this kind of action led many experts to believe that he killed more Germans than any other person in the AIF. The other thing that Hines was good at, was looting, and it was something that undertook at every opportunity.
But it wasn’t solely German equipment he would take, though he would avail himself of wallets, rings, medals, pistols, watches, overcoats, off of any German he encountered, either dead, wounded or as a Prisoner of War. Furniture, alcohol, and currency were also fair game for the souvenir king.
Hines would be officially wounded twice, once at Messines and at Villers Bretonneux both in 1917, though he would claim to be wounded five times. It was also during 1917 During the battle of Polygon Wood, that Australian Official War Photographer Frank Hurley came across Hines sitting amongst his latest horde of trophies and took arguably his most famous photo. It shows a weary-looking Hines, in a German soldier’s cap, surrounded by artillery shells, links of Machine Gun Ammunition, ‘Potato Masher’ grenades, helmets rifles, canteens, personnel effects, and is counting a wad of captured francs and German marks.
This photograph would be widely circulated both in Australia and Europe and allegedly caused Kaiser Wilhelm to issue a bounty on Hines, though no actual evidence of this exists.
The ferocity he exhibited on the battlefield was mirrored by what can only be called appalling behaviour off it. He was court-martialled nine times for drunkenness, impeding police investigations, forging entries to his paybook and being absent without leave. Hines also claims that he was caught robbing the strongroom of the bank of Amiens, though this doesn’t appear on his service record.
As a result of this, despite being receiving a number of field promotions, he would be repeatedly demoted back to Private and fined a total of 168 days’ pay and spent weeks in detention. This need for cash has led some to believe that this was why he was so obsessively looting.
His service would finally come to an end in the middle of 1918, when he would be medically discharged due to haemorrhoid problems, returning to Australia in October 1918, along with all his trophies.
It should be noted that the Australia War Record Section was established in 1917 to facilitate the provisioning of relics and trophies for the establishment of an Australian War Museum, and there is zero record of Hines handing over any of his loot to the AWRS.
Even though he was back in Australia, he was unexpectedly severely traumatised by his experiences. You could make the argument that his erratic behaviour away from the front line was an early indicator for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
After the war, Hines lived in a humpy, a kind of temporary structure akin to a lean-to made of hessian sacks and saplings he built himself on the outskirts of Sydney near Mount Druitt as an unmarried loner, and he would adorn it with trophies. Especially the wire fence which he would hang German helmets he had taken from the battlefield.
Sadly, he was unable to find consistent work and lived on his Army Pension, and the occasional odd job he could get. He would also bolster his income by selling his souvenirs. Occasionally Frank Hurley’s photograph of him would resurface in an article or exhibit, returning him briefly to the public’s attention. Despite living in near poverty, he would travel to the Concorde Reparation Hospital each week to donate a suitcase of vegetables that he had grown for the former soldiers there. Charles Bean, First World War Official Historian and Founder of what would become the Australian War Memorial considered Hines to be a ‘celebrity’ and had him featured with 50 others in the RSL, short for Returned Services League publication Reveille in the ’20s and 30’s this attention would result in donations and increase to his pension. Hurley’s photo would eventually be prominently displayed at the Australian War Memorial’s permanent building in Australia’s Capital.
It should be noted, that when war broke out once again in 1939, the now 64-year-old Hines presented himself to the ANZAC Memorial in Hyde Park Sydney to sign up, this was at the same time when many were debating whether or not he was still alive. While he was understandably rejected on the grounds of his health and age, so dedicated was he to return to service, he stowed away on a transport, until he was discovered and hauled before Major General Arthur Allen, who happened to be his former 45th Battalion Commander. He was promptly informed that this was a young man’s war and shown the gangway.
On 29th January 1958, he died at the Concord Repatriation Hospital and was buried in Rookwood Cemetery in a pauper’s grave, which lay unmarked until 1971 when the Mount Druitt Subbranch of the RSL paid for a headstone. The Blacktown City Council would also rename the street he lived on in his honour. In 2002 Mt Druitt Council would commission a monument dedicated to him, and his photo would once again adorn the wall of the Australian War Memorial in 2014 as its First World War Gallery was undergoing redevelopment.
Much like Bull Allen, historians have argued that John Hines was worthy of some form of decoration for gallantry and bravery, solely based on his battlefield exploits. But it’s most likely his behaviour off the battlefield made him ineligible. He could have had great honours, potentially even the Victoria Cross, and could have had similar fame to the photo Hurley took of him, but his macabre hobby of looting German dead somehow tarnishes that image.