Aboriginal Servicemen who fought in World War I

April 30, 2015
Aboriginal soldier Sapper Herbert Murray (centre) on the Western Front in 1917.

We have been assaulted by a massive celebration of 100 years since the landing at Gallipoli on April 25. This is partly due to the success of the protests at the 200th anniversary celebration of the January 26, 1788 First Fleet landing at Sydney Cove. There have been many protests on January 26 since then, undercutting and besmirching Australian nationalism.

As a result of these annual protests, then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke slowly shifted the emphasis to Anzac Day. This was pushed further by then-Prime Minister John Howard, who provided enormous funding commitments for the commemoration of April 25.

This was a way of managing Aboriginal protests about white colonisation, of bringing Aboriginal people into the fold after 80 years of neglect and expunging their gallant record. We should still honour those brave Aboriginal soldiers who fought and died in that bloodbath.

World War I was not the first war in which Aboriginal soldiers fought. Seven Aboriginal people were taken to the Boer War in 1900 as trackers and labourers. It is not clear whether they volunteered or not, but at the end of the war they were left in South Africa. They could not return to Australia because of the White Australia policy and died in South Africa.

At least 1000 Aboriginal soldiers served in World War I. They fought in France, Belgium (Flanders), Gallipoli, Palestine and Syria. They enlisted because they thought their sacrifice would end the entrenched discrimination in Apartheid Australia.

Aboriginal people were not considered citizens of Australia, but “wards” of the state Protector of Aborigines. They had low wages if any, were forced to live on reserves and missions, could not enter a public bar, vote, marry a non-Aboriginal person, or buy property.

They could also not easily enlist as they had to be “substantially of European descent.” Many lied about their age, race, parentage and name. Some were given permission by the local Protector of Aborigines to enlist. Some pretended they were of Maori, Indian, Portuguese or Pacific Islander descent. Some Aboriginal people who tried to enlist were rejected and sent back to their communities. There they were often arrested as they were not allowed to leave the reserve.

After the defeat of the 1917 conscription referendum, the restrictions on recruitment of Aboriginal people were eased, because they needed as many men for the bloodletting as possible. A new military order stated: “Half-castes may be enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force provided that the examining Medical Officers are satisfied that one of the parents is of European origin”.

On January 24, 1916, Douglas Grant, an Aboriginal person from the Bullenden Kerr Mountains in north Queensland, enlisted in the 34th Battalion at the age of 30. But he was discharged as his battalion was about to leave for France because government approval was required for Aboriginal Australians to leave the country.

During 1916, he enlisted again and this time left for France on board the ship, the Wiltshire to join the 13th Battalion. His whole tribe had been massacred by white landowners and he, a baby and the only survivor, was rescued by a white surveyor who was working in the area. Grant had been educated at a private school.

Before they joined the army for World War I, Aboriginal men were fully employed. Professor John Maynard said: “Not one of them didn’t have a job. They might have been a farm hand; they might have been a stockman … There was a truck driver; there was a butcher, a musician, a journalist! ... The history we have been told is completely wrong.”

Some Aboriginal people wanted to escape the poor conditions they were living in, the control of the protection boards, the constant racism and discrimination. Rather than being treated as slaves and with a bleak future, the army offered Aboriginal people a different environment.

Once they enlisted, they were treated on their merits and there was almost no racism — the colour of your skin doesn’t stop bullets and the spilt blood is the same colour. They received the same training as white troops and some education, which the government school system had failed to do.

They also got the same pay: six shillings a day. They served in the lower ranks, as infantry, machine gunners, light artillery and light horsemen.

However, on their return home to Australia, Aboriginal people suffered the most disgraceful treatment. They were shunned, their sacrifices ignored and their families oppressed even further by state and federal governments.

All returned soldiers were entitled to receive land under the Soldier Settlement Scheme. The cruellest blow was that this land was compulsorily acquired by the government from Aboriginal reserves to give to white soldiers so that they could become farmers. Some came back to find their children had been taken away.

Returned Aboriginal soldiers were not allowed to drink with their comrades at their local pub. There was no government support for wounded or mentally scarred Aboriginal veterans. War pensions and back pay were denied.

Gracelyn Smallwood, a Biri woman from Townsville, said: “I know of at least one Aboriginal veteran of World War I who was not only denied his pay packet and his pension, but upon his return was given the very same rags he had been wearing the day he volunteered, and sent back to work on a station, as if the trenches and mud and the fighting had never happened.”

They were not offered nor given any treatment for war trauma. As a consequence, many Aboriginal diggers were unable to forge a lasting relationship and turned to alcohol. When Aboriginal service men died of their wounds, the Department of Veterans Affairs often failed to provide plaques for their graves as it was supposed to do for all veterans who died of war-associated causes.

Aboriginal women lived “under the Act” and were subjected to restrictions on personal liberty and removal of their children by the state. In some cases the wages they were entitled to from a soldier’s pay were given to a state Protection Board rather than to the woman herself.

About one-third of the Aboriginal soldiers in World War I were killed in action or died of their wounds or disease. About 53 were killed at Gallipoli and five are buried there. Today, the bodies of those who fell in the battlefields of France and Belgium remain there, thousands of miles away from their ancestral country.

The repression of Aboriginal Australians increased between the wars, as Protection Acts gave government officials greater control over Aboriginal Australians. As late as 1928 Aboriginal Australians were being massacred in reprisal raids.

One good thing emerged from these wartime experiences. Historians now say that Aboriginal diggers’ anger at their treatment after the war helped sow the seeds for a wave of political activism in the mid- to late-1920s.

“This is not your war. It is their war,” World War I Aboriginal digger Michael Flick said to his sons when they were thinking of joining World War II. The service that these warriors did for an ungrateful nation helped provide momentum to the growing Aboriginal Rights Movement in the 1930s.

To counter their incorporation into the nationalism discourse, Aboriginal people say that the frontier wars must be an integral part of this story. They want a monument to the many battles that were fought and the hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal people who died defending their country.

Historian Henry Reynolds says there is a historical continuity between the genocidal massacres on the frontier and the battles involving Australian soldiers in World War I. The first was fought to seize the Australian continent and the second to secure a regional empire.

This government is spending $350 million on the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli. It is fetishising war in general, making it more difficult to fight racism and nationalism.

It makes it difficult to build solidarity with refugees. It also entrenches sexism. Women have very little to do with this narrative. They are pushed to the background as usual, even though the work of women at home fed the troops fighting abroad.

Australia needs to tell a different story to the one being peddled by the Australian government. No other nation bases its identity on a massive defeat in a foreign war. We need to tell the story of international solidarity not nationalism and war.

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