I have stood shoulder to shoulder with half castes in Hell’s pit, [Hell’s Spit] on Quinn’s Post, and seen them die like the grandest of white men and other little stunts I can mention. Cairns Post, 28 January 1933
These words were written in 1933 by James Bennett formerly of the 15th Battalion. Their significance is twofold. They show the prevailing view of society – and within it the AIF – that being white was the measure of a man’s worth – one applied here to Aboriginal soldiers, albeit in terms of deepest praise. But perhaps what is more important they show the presence of Aboriginal men at Gallipoli, the well-spring of the Anzac legend
To date 55 Aboriginal men have been identified as serving in this campaign and it is likely that there are more. The presence of these men, most of whom volunteered in late 1914 or early 1915, was in most cases in direct contravention of the provisions of the Commonwealth Defence Act 1903 (amended 1909). This, in line with the prevailing white Australian sentiment prevented men ‘not of substantial European origin’ from serving their country overseas. Their presence in the AIF shows the inconsistent application of these provisions which is evident throughout the course of the war and which resulted in just over 900 (verified) Indigenous men volunteering and a slightly less number being accepted for service in the AIF. These successful volunteers included men clearly not of substantial European origin and a minority described as ’full blood’. They came from all Australian states with the largest number coming from New South Wales.
Of those Aboriginal men who served at Gallipoli, service records show that at least one man, Cyril Johnson a Tasmanian member of the15th Battalion took part in the landing on 25 April. He died three months later of wounds received at Gallipoli. Others arrived in subsequent days and months. While most were members of infantry battalions some belonged to light horse regiments which fought dismounted. These included two descendants of Yarramundi, chief of the Boorooberongal tribe of the Darug of the Sydney region – Henry [Harry] James Locke 1st Light Horse Regiment and Alfred Frederick Bolton1st Battalion. Both survived the war. Men who died at Gallipoli or from wounds received there included Arthur Charles Homer 5th Light Horse Regiment, Edgar George Bindoff 1st Battalion, Edward Lewis Maynard 15th battalion and Peter Zeisser 1st Light Horse Regiment. Zeisser’s Aboriginal mother, Bella signed with a cross to acknowledge receipt of the official photographs of her son’s grave.
Two of those who survived the war were Charles Gordon Naley 16th Battalion and Charles Hutchins 28th Battalion, both born in Western Australia. They came home with English wives and are just two of a number of Aboriginal men who, like non Indigenous servicemen, married in the UK and brought their wives, and sometimes their children, back to Australia. Naley was also a prisoner of war, captured in France in April I9I7.
Alfred John Hearps 12th Battalion, the sole identified officer of Aboriginal heritage, also survived Gallipoli, only to die in France. Another Tasmanian, 12th Battalion soldier, Jack Roy Johnson was 17 when war broke out and in the absence of his parents’ permission, volunteered under the alias John Rollins. He was awarded the Military Medal after service in France. Between them all these men were wounded – sometimes more than once, gassed or suffered from disease during the course of the war.
The variety of Aboriginal experience in the AIF replicates that of non-Aboriginal men but despite their shared experience and presence in the AIF from the early days of the war, there is an important difference. Officially if substantially not of European descent, their country did not want their service. When it was accepted it was basically for pragmatic reasons, particularly as the war progressed and volunteers were in short supply. As Bennett pointed out so clearly, Aboriginal men served with distinction – even if with the caveat that they were not white – but they returned to an Australia where Aboriginal people, although British subjects, were denied rights enjoyed by others and faced on-going prejudice. Bennett’s impassioned statement about the Aboriginal men at Quinn’s Post and Hell’s Spit was prompted by an attempt by the Queensland RSSILA (predecessor of the RSL) to prevent Aboriginal children, some the children of former soldiers, from attending schools with white children. It was indicative of the attitude in Australia to Aboriginal people. Those Aboriginal men who thought that service would result in changed conditions for Aboriginal people were disappointed but as is now being recognised Aboriginal experience of war formes part of the background to the developing fight for Aboriginal rights and so from this point of view was not in vain.
Now the increasing recognition of Aboriginal service is at last enabling the acknowledgement of the place of Aboriginal men in the Gallipoli experience so meaningful to many Australians, service which until recently was absent from white Australia’s remembrance of war.
Below I post again the names of Aboriginal men who served at Gallipoli in a list compiled by David Huggonson. Additions based on my own research are indicated by an asterisk. This list has been amended and updated from David Huggonson’s original list of 32 names and now stands at 55.
Details of the service of these men can be found in their service records, digitised on the website of the National Archives of Australia. The place name after each service number is place of birth as stated in the service record. All men listed here are either named in the referenced listing in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Volunteers for the AIF: The Indigenous Response to World War One or will appear in a forthcoming edition.
Why is it important to draw attention to these men? It’s because Aboriginal war service was ignored for so long and because showing the presence of Indigenous men in this campaign is one way of incorporating (but not assimilating) Indigenous service into the story of Australian military history and the history of Australia.
SOME MEN OF ABORIGINAL DESCENT WHO SERVED AT GALLIPOLI
Compiler DAVID HUGGONSON 2014
BINDOFF, Edgar George 1720, Sydney, New South Wales
BOLTON, Alfred Frederick 682, Windsor, New South Wales
BURKE, James Ernest 529, New South Wales *
CAMERON, Alfred 1173, Meningie, South Australia
CROUGH, Kenneth 1125, Warrnambool, Victoria
DICKERSON, James 392, Gin Gin, Western Australia
DRURY, Albert Matthew 863, New South Wales *
FARMER, Larry 62, Katanning, Western Australia
FARMER, Lewis 421, Katanning, Western Australia
GOLDSPINK, William 2172, Tumbarumba, New South Wales *
HARRIS, William 2538, Wellington New South Wales *
HEARPS, Alfred John,  2nd Lieutenant, Forth, Tasmania *
HOLT, Harold John 2289, Launceston, Tasmania *
HOMER, Arthur Charles 115, Bathurst, New South Wales *
HUTCHINS, Charles 307, Busselton, Western Australia
JACKSON, William John 1952, Bunbury, Western Australia
JOHNSON, Cyril Allen, 1340, Sheffield, Tasmania *
JOHNSON, Jack Roy, 1867, (served as John Rollins), Warrnambool, Victoria *
JOHNSON, Vernon Phillip, 2225, Sheffield Tasmania *
KARPANY, George 3502, East Wellington, South Australia
KELLY, Alfred William 590, Macksville, New South Wales
KIRBY, Richard Norman 2305, Dubbo, New South Wales *
LAVENDER, Andrew 285, Wellington, New South Wales *
LOCKE, Henry James 532, Waterloo, New South Wales *
MARTIN, Richard 1359, Brisbane, Queensland
MASON, Allan 1962, New South Wales *
MAYNARD, Edward 2294, Flinders Island, Tasmania
MAYNARD, Frank 1153, Flinders Island, Tasmania
MAYNARD, Leo 3992, Flinders Island, Tasmania
MCCALLUM, Arthur Edward 165, Albany, Western Australia
MCDONALD, Allan 764, Condah, Victoria
MILLER, John William 1227, Peppermint Bay, Tasmania
MUCKRAY, Hurtle 757, East Wellington, South Australia
NALEY, Charles Gordon 1310, Eucla, Western Australia
OLSEN, Andrew 736, Toowong, Queensland
OWEN, Frank Edgar 4193, Wallaroo, South Australia *
PATTERSON, Hurtle Austin 34, Townsville, Queensland
PERFECT, Joseph 200, Rockhampton, Queensland
PRIESTLY, Norman 2786, Gordonbrook Station, New South Wales
REID, John Patrick 2195 Cooma, New South Wales *
ROBINS, Alfred Arthur 1426, Junee, New South Wales
ROWAN, John 1506, Healesville, Victoria
SAYERS, Frederick Leslie 1042, Busselton, Western Australia *
SHAW, Claude 2413, Gin Gin, Western Australia *
SIMPSON, Stamford Wallace 687, Kangaroo Island, South Australia *
SKELLY, William 2933, Mount Hope New South Wales *
SLOANE, John 783, Forbes, New South Wales
SMITH, Leonard Gilmore 1303, Norwood, South Australia
STAFFORD, Charles Fitzroy 190, Mudgee New South Wales *
STOW, Albert Edward, 2162, Dungog, New South Wales
THOMPSON, Albert Victor 1644, Perth, Western Australia *
TRIPP, Hubert Frank 1428, Victor Harbour, South Australia
WALKER, Arthur Thomas 2466, Wallaroo, South Australia
WALLER, Charles Stephen 1337, Kangaroo Island, South Australia
WRIGHT, Alfred 2017, Nyngan, New South Wales *
ZEISSER, Peter 168 Sydney, New South Wales *
23 April 2015