The Black Rat
He lived in a tin hut with a hard dirt floor.
He had bags sewn together that was his door.
He was a Rat of Tobruk until forty five,
He was one of the few that came back alive.
Battered and scarred he fought for this land,
And on his return they all shook his hand.
The price of fighting for the freedom of man
Did not make any difference to this Blackman.
He returned to the outback, no mates did he find.
If he had a beer he was jailed and then fined.
He sold all his medals he once proudly wore:
They were of no use to him any more.
Confused and alone he wandered around,
Looking for work though none could be found.
The Anzac marches he badly neglected,
Would show to his comrades how he was rejected.
He fought for this land so he could be free.
Yet he could not vote after his desert melee.
And those years in the desert they really took their toll,
He went there quite young and he came home so old.
This once tall man came from a proud Black tribe,
Died all alone – no one at his side.
Reproduced courtesy of Bruce Clayton- Brown
The service of Cecil Clayton in World War Two was the inspiration for this poem by his daughter Iris Clayton (1945 – 2009). The poem was first published in 1988 in Inside Black Australia edited by Kevin Gilbert. Cecil Clayton and another Wiradjuri man, Tommy Lyons were both members of the 2/13th Battalion, 9th Division AIF.
Tobruk is a North African town on the Libyan coast originally captured by the Australian 6th Division in January 1941. In April the 9th Division, which had arrived in Libya in February, were encircled and held under siege in Tobruk by a German–Italian army commanded by General Erwin Rommel. The siege lasted eight months and involved 14000 Australian soldiers including the men of the 2/13th Battalion, together with British and Indian troops.
For eight long months, surrounded by German and Italian forces, the men of the Tobruk garrison, mostly Australians, withstood tank attacks, artillery barrages, and daily bombings. They endured the desert’s searing heat, the bitterly cold nights, and hellish dust storms. They lived in dug-outs, caves, and crevasses.
AWM Exhibition notes 2011: Rats of Tobruk 1941
While others from the garrison were relieved, Cecil Clayton’s unit remained till the last.
William Joyce, the Nazi broadcaster, known as Lord Haw Haw coined the term ‘rats’ for the defenders of Tobruk – but contrary to his intention this slur became a badge of honour for those involved – and posterity. The siege of Tobruk is one of the best known events in Australia’s military history. Less known is the presence there of Aboriginal servicemen. Iris’ poem, with strong irony, not only draws attention to this but speaks for the many Aboriginal servicemen in all conflicts whose service until relatively recently remained unrecognised.
NOTE Tommy Lyons’ father also Thomas, served in France with the 54th Battalion in World War One. He was twice wounded in action in 1917 and 1918.
Philippa Scarlett 18 April 2013
As a tribute to Cecil Clayton and his daughter and to other Indigenous Rats, in December 2013 John Tognolini has recorded Iris’ poem, set to his own music . http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUOL_Yu1uZ8&feature=youtu.be