Forgotten soldiers of WWI

By Kathy Marks

At least 40 Aboriginal soldiers fought at Gallipoli - but you wouldn't know it.

Aboriginal performers in Black Diggers, a play which opened at the Sydney Festival last week. Photo / AP
Aboriginal performers in Black Diggers, a play which opened at the Sydney Festival last week. Photo / AP

They call themselves the "forgotten soldiers" - the 1000 or so Aboriginal men who fought for their country in World War I but returned home to find that the respect they had earned on the battlefield was denied them in mainstream society.

As Australians prepare to mark the centenary of the start of the "Great War" - and, more seminally, that of the 1915 Gallipoli debacle - the forgotten soldiers are emerging from the shadows and claiming their rightful place in the history books and the national mythology.

Key dates always trigger soul-searching here. The front page of Sunday's Sun-Herald featured a large photograph of Adam Goodes, the indigenous AFL footballer and newly crowned Australian of the Year, together with a quotation from his Australia Day interview: "It's a very sad day for a lot of our mob."

The next 15 months will see a frenzy of navel-gazing, culminating in a centenary service next year at Anzac Cove, where 8709 Australians and 2721 New Zealanders were killed during the failed campaign to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula, in modern-day Turkey.

At least 40 Aboriginal soldiers fought at Gallipoli - not that you would know it from official accounts or fictional recreations such as Peter Weir's 1981 movie, notes Gary Oakley, indigenous liaison officer at the Australian War Memorial (AWM) in Canberra.

Indigenous recruits - who also served in large numbers in World War II, Vietnam and other conflicts - were not even recognised as citizens in 1914. Legally, they were barred from enlisting, but recruitment officers increasingly turned a blind eye as the death toll mounted.

For young men who had been confined to reservations, with state authorities dictating where they could live and work, and often withholding their wages, war was a liberating experience.

"For the first time in their lives, they were treated as equals," says Oakley. "They got the same pay as their white comrades, and they faced the same opportunities and challenges. Really, the Australian Defence Force was the first equal opportunities employer." (The Australian Imperial Force was the only Commonwealth force without racially segregated units.) It was a similar story in the trenches, where black and white soldiers bonded amid the privations and suffering, according to Tom Wright, the author of Black Diggers, a play which debuted last week at the Sydney Festival.

"Once you put on a uniform, colour is irrelevant," says the playwright, who mined letters, diaries and oral histories for material.

On their return to a still segregated Australia, however, indigenous ex-servicemen were refused service in pubs - even when wearing their uniform and medals - and excluded from RSL (RSA) clubs. Some country towns left Aboriginal names off war memorials.

"The big disappointment was that they thought they'd done their bit for their country, but their employment prospects were no better, they still couldn't vote, they still weren't believed by the local police officer," says Wright.

They still couldn't travel freely, or buy property, or marry a white woman without permission. Most insultingly, perhaps, their ancestral lands were compulsorily acquired to enable returned service personnel to become farmers, under a scheme from which they were excluded.

As one character in Black Diggers observes: "They painted the colour back on the day I got off that boat ... I feel like I won something over there and I lost it back here."

They also struggled to reintegrate into their own communities - "caught between a white society that was largely indifferent to their plight and a black society that was unable to understand it", as Wright puts it.

Many had joined up, Oakley believes, "as a way to prove your manhood as a warrior", and to protect "country" - even if that meant their traditional lands rather than the Australian nation. "And I think they also thought that when they came back to Australia they'd be looked on differently because they'd served the nation, but things went back to the status quo," he says.

"You weren't allowed to march on Anzac Day, you weren't allowed to have a drink with your mates in the pub. So people disappeared."

That invisibility - in wider society, at least - is one reason why their role has never been properly recognised, he says.

Things are changing, slowly. The AWM's World War I gallery is being revamped to incorporate throughout the part played by Aboriginal soldiers, rather than consigning it to a solitary plaque. Centenary ceremonies are expected to have a strong indigenous flavour.

Wright hopes that Black Diggers - directed by Wesley Enoch, indigenous director of the Queensland Theatre Company - will, by integrating black faces into the broader national story, help to "recalibrate" the Anzac legend.

Because, as Oakley observes: "Anzac is not [exclusively] a white man's story."

- NZ Herald

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