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‘God … guard me safely through this strange country … and if he spares me to come back to the homeland, I will come back the same … but do not get anxious or worry. If the worst should come you know you have one who has proved a soldier to the end, and I will die proud of the one I left behind.’ – Private Edward Heath, killed in action, Messines, 1917
At least a thousand Aboriginal men enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and recent research is shedding light on their experiences on the frontline and difficulties in coming home.
Indigenous men were excluded from military service in Australia until May 1917 and popular thinking is that most enlisted after this date, but Indigenous historian Professor John Maynard has found the majority of Aboriginal soldiers enlisted from 1914 to 1916.
Professor Maynard has found these soldiers were ‘inventive and proactive’ in finding ways to sign up. They moved to places with greater support and appreciation of Aboriginal people – two-thirds came from (or enlisted in) rural or country regions – and they took on other racial identities, such as South Sea Islander or Maori.
The majority of Indigenous men who volunteered for the AIF stated they were employed as stockmen, labourers, shearers and farmhands, but there were 33 other occupations noted as well including oyster merchant, journalist, dental mechanic, clerk and plumber.
Given they were already employed, income was not a likely reason for joining, Professor Maynard said:
‘Aboriginal men did not go to war simply because they lacked options or choice,’ he said. Some probably signed up for the same reasons as non-Indigenous men: for travel and adventure; because their mates or brothers had signed up; because they believed in the war effort; or because they were subjected to aggressive recruitment campaigns.’
Many Indigenous men encountered ‘official obstruction’ but this did not stop them from serving with courage and pride.
‘Aboriginal men took part in some of the fiercest fighting on the Western Front, a theatre where the individual soldier was almost eclipsed by artillery and other weapons of industrialised war,’ he said.
Among those recognised officially were:
Albert Knight who was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for a reconnoitre of the Hindenburg Line, in daylight and under heavy fire;
William Allan Irwin who received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for ‘magnificent gallantry’ in assisting an advance and inspiring his company;
Ewan Rose who received the Belgian Croix de Guerre after ‘excellent work’, ‘courage and cheerfulness’ in extricating his comrades at Broodseinde Ridge;
Harry Thorpe who displayed ‘great courage and initiative’, skill and ‘disregard of all danger’; and
William Rawlings who received the Military Medal for bravery.
As much as Indigenous soldiers felt homesick during the war, returning to Australian society proved difficult. Some never returned to their communities and families, preferring isolation, while others became activists for Aboriginal advancement in the 1920s or re-enlisted in the Second World War.