Popular verse in the immediate post war period, could be a gauge of popular feeling about the war and another way of showing how the nation made sense out of the carnage and the fact of fighting.
W. M. Fleming for example wrote in 1917
The guns have killed but it is true
They bring to life things good and new
(‘The Test’ in Australia in Peace and war, Melbourne, 1917. PP.123-4.)
The view of the Australian digger of another better known poet C. J. Dennis, in his 1920 narrative poem Digger Smith is sometimes a reflective one. Take for example Digger Smith’s assertion
They ‘ave got somethin’ from this war,
Somethin’ they never ‘ad before, …
There’s no word I can get
To name it right.
(IX ‘The boys out there’, Digger Smith, Sydney, 1920, p.26)
With these words Dennis, through Smith, seems to be attempting to define the mateship forged at Gallipoli and beyond, which translated into the Anzac legend. While both Indigenous and non-Indigenous experienced the same war, it is here with this mainstream interpretation of the war experience that the resemblance between Indigenous and non-Indigenous soldiers ends. This is because Aboriginal men were not included in C.E.W.Bean’s Anzac legend which related to the white population of Australia. In fact despite the existence of Indigenous servicemen, the rhetoric surrounding the war was that the AIF was composed of White Australians fighting for a White Australia.
So what did Aboriginal servicemen get from their service? Practically speaking, the war service of most Aboriginal men gave them nothing ‘they never ‘ad before’ – particularly the citizens’ rights some Aboriginal men and their communities thought would flow from service. Moreover ongoing mateship was often curtailed by the attitude in some RSSILA (later RSL) sub branches to Aboriginal membership, although service records show that there were Aboriginal RSL members and the organisation did support Aboriginal citizen rights.
But if ‘somethin’ they never ‘ad before’ did not follow immediately from war service for Aboriginal men – the post war treatment of Aboriginal servicemen acted as a spur for some to continue to press for changed conditions. Amongst these was William Cooper from Cummeragunja, on the Murray, whose disillusionment with the treatment of Aboriginal ex servicemen is expressed in post war correspondence supporting his activism. In 1938 representatives of nineteen family groups from New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria, who had contributed men to the first AIF, six of whom themselves were ex-soldiers, were founding member of the Aborigines Progressive Association. The Association was created to secure full citizens rights for Aboriginal people. (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Volunteers for the AIF: The Indigenous response to World War One, 2012, p.45, fn. 48)
Gary Coe referring to Noah Riseman’s Anzac day 2012 Drum article, Aboriginal diggers and the battle for equality said of Aborigines and Anzac
until we change Section 25 of our Constitution [which allows states to disqualify people from voting because of their race] … it all rings rather hollow. I doubt most Aussies would even know that such paragraphs exist in our constitution, and I for one believe that it would do more for us as a nation to teach such truths rather than dwell on the Anzac myth.
He has a point worth discussing.
Gary Coe does not say whether he is a member of the Aboriginal Coe family which made a significant contribution to WW1. Six Coes volunteered for the first world war, five were the sons of Cowra drover Tom Coe and one, John Henry Alfred Coe, was his brother. Five of these Coes went overseas and John Henry Alfred Coe was killed at Pozieres in 1917. John Augustus Coe was wounded in France in 1917 and 1918 and was sent home to Australia. He was plainly affected by his war service and died in 1921 aged twenty three. His death registration indicates he was probably a patient in the Fourth Australian Repatriation Hospital Randwick.
Philippa Scarlett 9 January 2013