During the course of the First World War Aboriginal soldiers were members of all but two of the 61 infantry battalions of the AIF and of all light horse regiments. They also served in artillery brigades, machine gun companies, pioneer, motor transport and cyclist battalions, remounts, camel corps, tunnelling companies, veterinary sections, railway units, supply and transport units, medical corps and hospital units. (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Volunteers for the AIF Page 3.) Despite this their presence went unnoticed by the chroniclers of the history of the AIF. Aboriginal individuals displayed the same qualities as other AIF members, including those which were used to craft the Anzac legend. Belatedly the retrospective movement to link Aboriginal soldiers into the Anzac tradition recognises this.
There are two more particularly relevant facts about the service of Aboriginal men in the AIF. The first is that they served despite the provisions of the Defence Act of their own country prohibiting men ‘not of substantial European origin’ from doing so. Second and equally relevant was the fact that this was not the first time Aboriginal people had taken up arms in defence of their land. Although Aboriginal service in Australia’s overseas wars, once ignored is now gaining recognition, in 2013 the war which followed invasion is still not officially commemorated by the Australian Government and people.
Like Gallipoli the conflict in the years after 1788 resulted in defeat, at least for some Australians. It too could be called an heroic one, but as a war on Australian soil not fought in a foreign land it does not fit into the template we have come to expect of defeats of this kind: it is too close to home, the victors and vanquished live side by side and the victors – traditionally so often the interpreters of history – are in the majority.
I wrote in 2o12 that the exclusion of Aboriginal people from Anzac was
rendered more poignant and given irony by the fact that by 1914 Aborigines in Australia were already veterans of a continuing war, one which started in 1788 and which some would argue is still unfinished. Moreover while Australia found and still finds positives in the defeat of Gallipoli, it is hard for Aboriginal people to see the experience of the forcible alienation of their land and destruction of so much of their language, culture and social organisation in a similar creative way. (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Volunteers for the AIF Page 81.)
The war which followed invasion may not have been a Gallipoli, but the consequences of this defeat for the losers are all around us – not as with Gallipoli to be seen in the mythologising and rhetoric which continues to build on this campaign – but in the continuing impact of invasion on the lives of Aboriginal people.
With the steadily growing recognition of Aboriginal war service in Australia’s overseas wars, the next step for the benefit of Aboriginal and non Aboriginal Australians alike, is to acknowledge the first war on Australian soil. Dean Ashenden is representative of a number of commentators seeking recognition by the Australian War Memorial of this war. (‘Best we Forget’, Canberra Times 3 April, 2012). He says
The historians’ case is straightforward. It has now been established beyond doubt that armed conflict between black and white occurred across the continent over a long period of time, and was routinely referred to by participants and observers as a ”war”; those conflicts were similar to other irregular warfare already commemorated by the memorial; so, the ”frontier wars” should be commemorated also.
Not only would this be a significant act of reconciliation, it would strengthen Australia’s understanding of its history – both military and social – and make Anzac Day a day at last fully inclusive of all Australians.
If as some would have it, Australia came to birth as a nation at Gallipoli, can Australia come to national maturity before the centenary of Gallipoli by recognising ALL of the wars which have shaped its history?
Philippa Scarlett 25 April 2013