In 1933 a former private in the 15th Battalion drew attention to the service of Aboriginal men at Gallipoli when he said ‘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.’ In subsequent years the existence of Aboriginal soldiers at Gallipoli and in World War One as a whole, was largely erased from Australian history. During the last decades of the 20th century this situation slowly began to change. Yet, as recently as 2001, Les Carlyon, in his book Gallipoli (described as a ‘definitive history’) denied Aboriginal men a place in what many Australians regard as the most significant campaign in their history.
That there were Aboriginal men at Gallipoli we do know – the question is how many. Recent estimates of the number of Aboriginal men killed or surviving the Gallipoli campaign have varied from the mid thirties to a conservative seventeen.
Lists compiled in the past of Aboriginal men who served in World War One, including Gallipoli, have included individuals who were not Aboriginal or whose Aboriginality needs clarification. The James Lucas, 953, born Mudgee NSW, who enlisted in Queensland and died at Gallipoli is one of a number of problematic servicemen. There is an Indigenous James Lucas from Queensland who is documented in 1897 (1) but he is unlikely to be the James Lucas from Mudgee. I would welcome any information confirming Aboriginal heritage for a serviceman of this name. AIF records available for view on the National Archives of Australia website (in series B2455) show that eleven men named James Lucas volunteered for World War One.
The issue of identification raised here emphasises the importance of accessible referencing when talking about Indigenous service in general and Gallipoli in particular. The compiler of one list of Indigenous World War One servicemen has observed that it is in the nature of history to be self correcting. This is sometimes true but unfortunately not always. It is now close to April 2013. The 2015 centenary of Gallipoli is fast approaching and time for history to assist is running out. This makes it all the more important to place the identification of the Indigenous men of this campaign on a firm basis.
(1) Regina Ganter and Ros Kidd ‘The powers of protectors: Conflicts surrounding Queensland’s 1897 aboriginal legislation’. Australian Historical Studies, Vol 25, 101, 1993 pp. 536-554
Philippa Scarlett 24 February 2013