By Amber McCulloch

03 December 2014 - 06:40

Studio portrait of two Aboriginal servicemen from Taree
Studio portrait of two Aboriginal servicemen from Taree. ©

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS)

Exactly 100 years after the first Australian soldiers arrived in the Mediterranean for training and combat in the First World War, the British Council's Amber McCulloch explains what it meant for Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander soldiers to fight alongside their mates for a country of which they were not yet considered citizens.

Australia before the First World War: British Dominion or independent nation?

For the young nation of Australia, participation in the First World War marked a crucial point in the country’s development. As a British Dominion, Australia was called – along with Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and India – to stand in battle in the name of Empire, putting the country, for the first time since 1901’s Federation, on the world stage.

The First World War offered Australia an opportunity to demonstrate its strength, ingenuity and integrity and to forge a distinct international identity which would endure throughout the 20th century.

'Australians will stand beside our own to help and defend Britain to our last man and our last shilling.'

The now famous words of Andrew Fisher, the opposition leader then and later prime minister, resonated with the people of Australia, who came in droves to volunteer for service in the First World War. By December 1914, 52,561 Australians had enthusiastically enlisted, amid a national sense of pride and high emotion.

How Australia remembers the First World War

The legend of the ANZAC – a term coined for those who served in the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps between 1914 and 1918 – is etched deeply into the Australian national psyche, symbolising resilience, bravery, loyalty and honour. Australia’s involvement in the First World War saw the relatively young commonwealth nation show its support for Britain and the allied forces by sending more than 400,000 soldiers into battle, 60,000 of whom would never return. The allied forces’ expedition to capture the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915 remains one of Australia’s most notable wartime actions, with some 8,000 Australians losing their lives in battle against Turkish troops.

Long overlooked: the involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers

Among the ANZAC ranks at Gallipoli were an estimated 500+ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers. At a time when Aboriginal people were disallowed Australian citizenship (it was as late as 1967 before the Australian constitution was changed to incorporate citizenship for Aboriginal Australians) and were socially ostracised, the army presented a place where Aboriginal people could seek equality. It is reported [link no longer available – 17 July 2017] that, for many indigenous Australians, enlisting in the army meant gainful employment, respect among peers and a sense of agency. Aboriginal soldiers at war were treated in much the same manner as their white counterparts; most were considered anonymous soldiers, while some (such as Corporal Albert Knight and Private William Irwin) received awards for outstanding actions.

The exact number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers who served in the First World War is not known, due to ethnicity being unstated on army registration forms, as was protocol at the time. In 2014, it is estimated that the number exceeds 1,000 soldiers and we can assume that continuing research will reveal it to be a larger number yet.

Did involvement in the war translate into recognition back in Australia?

Upon returning home from the war, however, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people found that the cultural climate had not changed for the better. In Australian society, racism and exclusion were rife in 1918 and the contribution of those indigenous Australians who served at war was forgotten, their rights revoked.

Ron Bradfield Jr, a fellow of British Council Australia’s ACCELERATE leadership programme for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and an ex-serviceman of ten years, explained to me:

'Bizarrely, war gave these Aboriginal and Islander men (and women) a taste of equality through a set of circumstance that was all at once horrific, incredibly human and totally foreign to them. War forced these whitefellas and blackfellas to bleed and cry in each other’s arms and that sense of Australian ‘mateship’ really became palpable for these men – as they trained, fought, lived and died – side by side.

'Then they came home – only to become non-entities all over again.

'If we understood very little about how war traumatised people who took part in it in those days, we knew absolutely nothing about what it also meant for a group of people that fought and died for Australia, but would never be called Australians or citizens for their service.'

Initiatives for inclusive remembrance in Australia

With the centenary of the First World War this year, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are developing a number of initiatives to commemorate the First World War’s indigenous soldiers. Examples include the following:

1. The play Black Diggers is the product of extensive research into the experience of Aboriginal soldiers, not only in the First World War, but in the Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Sydney Festival and Brisbane Festival have both included it in their programmes this year. The play has gone some way towards shedding light on a contribution to society that history has largely overlooked.

2. Aboriginal Diggers will be an interactive exhibition at the Museum of Freedom and Tolerance Western Australia, using live performance as well as digital technology to help tell the stories of Western Australian Aboriginal people who served in the First Australian Imperial Force during the First World War. The exhibition's interactive elements include a ‘diary room’, in which the families of Western Australian Indigenous Diggers can submit their relatives’ stories, and a ‘thank you wall’, where members of the public can share their responses to the exhibition.

Putting the role of indigenous soldiers in the minds and hearts of people in Australia and beyond

It appears, that in this time of reflection and commemoration, cultural initiatives such as the above are finally putting the role of indigenous soldiers where it belongs: embedded in history and in the minds and hearts of all Australians.

Moreover, beyond Australia, too, people should remember the role of these men and women and, as the British Council’s recent report Remember the World as well as the War argues, the ones from many other parts of the world.

Studio portrait of two Aboriginal servicemen from Taree, NSW; 6564 Private (Pte) William "Nip" Simon (left) and 6551 Pte Harold Howard Maher. Both men enlisted in the 20th Battalion on 6 December 1916, and embarked for service overseas with the 19th Reinforcements aboard HMAT Anchises (A68) from Sydney on 24 January 1917. They served together with the 20th Battalion in France, where Pte Maher was wounded in action on 3 August 1918. He was invalided to the United Kingdom, and returned to Australia in February 1919. Pte Simon returned to Australia on 7 June 1918. Copies or permission to use this image must be made to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), GPO Box 553, Canberra ACT 2601, Australia.

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