NON WHITE AUSTRALIANS AND THE AIF

Arthur Quong Tart wounded at Pozieres courtesy Lois McEvoy

Arthur Malcolm Quong Tart, Brisbane, 1917. Courtesy Lois McEvoy

The public image of the men of the first AIF given currency by Charles Bean, the editor of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 and author of some of its volumes, was one of bushmen – white men – from rural Australia, like those he had met when he wrote the series of articles published in book form in 1910 as On the Wool Track. In this he spoke of ‘these large-hearted, intelligent, simple men of the Far West – the best material in Australia, the truest mates in the world’. Translated into the AIF they were mates of British origin fighting for King and country – and also for a white Australia. Bean saw Australia as an Anglo Saxon country and wrote approvingly of the ‘White Australia’ policy. Introducing the AIF in Volume 1 of the Official History he wrote

The Australian was half a soldier before the war; indeed throughout the war, in the hottest fights on Gallipoli and in the bitterest trials of France or Palestine, the Australian soldier differed very little from the Australian who at home rides the station boundaries every week-day and sits of a Sunday round the stockyard fence (p.47).

On the Wool Track does mention ‘natives’, ‘blacks’, ‘black fellows’ and Chinese but not as part of the bush work force whose qualities Bean saw as so formative of the Anzac legend.

In reality many of the men in the AIF came not from the bush but from the cities and urban areas. Moreover not all were white. As well as men of Aboriginal heritage there were men of other ethnicities. Amongst these were men of Chinese heritage. While Chinese have been part of the Australian story since the early days of the colony of New South Wales, their presence was boosted in the 1850s by the influx of thousands of Chinese following the discovery of gold in South Eastern Australia. By 1914 their descendants and those of later Chinese immigrants were amongst those who volunteered for the AIF. In doing so they were faced with the same enlistment problems encountered by Aboriginal men, stemming from Australia’s restrictive race based legislation and their acceptance or rejection followed similar patterns – and was just as inconsistent. This is apparent from the service records of AIF volunteers of Chinese descent which closely parallel those of Indigenous Australians – often recording initial rejection because of race followed later by acceptance or in other cases simply rejection.

One of those who did not succeed in joining the AIF was George Kong Meng born in Victoria, the son of a Chinese British citizen from Penang and a mother born in Tasmania. His brother Herbert was able to enlist in 1914 and was already overseas when Kong Meng was rejected twice for lack of substantial European descent. The experience of his second rejection in January 1916 is recorded in a letter of protest he wrote to the Melbourne Argus.

I attended the recruiting depot at the Melbourne Town Hall on Friday, the 14th inst. and after giving my name, age, and religion to the recruiting sergeant was taken in with some others to the examining room and told to undress, preparatory to the officer examining me as to my physical fitness. After my height, weight, and chest measurement had been taken by one the officials there I was sent to the medical officer. Upon going before him I was told to get dressed again, and when I asked if I had failed to pass the medical officer he said he would not swear me in. When leaving the depot I received a certificate with “not substantially of European origin” written on it, and signed by the medical officer. 

George Kong Meng was a British subject and an Australian citizen by birth who had already spent six years military service in the Victorian Mounted Rifles and the 8th Light Horse. His rejection for service in the AIF left him embittered, diminished and disillusioned with his country:

Evidently the authorities at the Melbourne Town Hall depot seem to think I am not worthy of helping to defend the Empire. The Prime Minister has appealed to every man of a military age to join the colors; but, if this is the treatment the native-born are to receive, I am afraid the appeal will fall on deaf ears. England and France deem it fit to use coloured troops to defend their shores, but the great Australian democracy denies its own-subjects the same opportunities. I might state that I have gone to Melbourne on two occasions to offer my services to my King and country, and, after paying all travelling expenses, to be treated like this does not give one any encouragement to go again.

Kong Meng’s words are equally applicable to the Aboriginal men who shared similar experiences. Aboriginal Australians were ‘natural born British subjects’ and required to attest to this when applying to join the AIF.

When Kong Meng complained in the press of his exclusion a correspondent replied pointing out that another Australian Chinese man, Arthur Quong Tart with ‘origin … about the same’ had recently embarked for the front. Both Tart and Kong Meng , whose father was Lowe Kong Meng of Melbourne, were the sons of well known and respected Chinese businessmen. Tart’s father, Mei Quong Tart, a naturalised Australian, was born in China and his mother was an Englishwoman, Margaret Scarlett.

Arthur Quong Tart although accepted for service in the AIF was no stranger to  discrimination. He had experienced racial taunts as a school child and at an official level when visiting New Zealand in 1910 he was detained because of his race by Customs officials. He was only released when it ‘was shown that Mr Tart was a half caste’ and not subject to the New Zealand Immigration Restriction Act.

Arthur Tart also experienced rejection before he was finally accepted for the AIF in August 1915 aged 23 but this rejection was, ostensibly at least, not because of his race but his height.

Pte. Arthur Quong Tart of the 7th Reinforcements of the 19th Battalion is the eldest son of Mrs and the late Mr. Quong Tart, of ‘Gallop House,’ Arthur-street, Ashfield. Prior to enlisting he was engaged in wool classing and wool buying, having gained his experience In New Zealand, Queensland, and New South Wales, He has been educated at Petersham Public School, Ashfield College, and Burwood Grammar School, and finished his studies at Riverview College. Private Quong Tart made [several?] attempts to enlist, but was not successful in joining the ranks until the height standard was reduced to 5ft 2in.  

His service however did not last long and by February 1917 he was back in Australia.

Pte. Arthur Tart, the talented young soldier at present convalescing at the Booloominbah Home, Armidale, is the son of the late Mr. Quong Tart, the well known Sydney business man. Pte. Tart was blown 20ft into the air in France by a shell, and is now making good progress from the severe shock he received.

He had been buried four times by exploding shells at Pozieres between 22 and 26 July 1916 and was left temporarily without power in his legs, hysteria, a stutter and later a limp and not surprisingly suffered from shellshock. His mother died on 27 July 1916 only a day after Arthur was being assaulted by shell fire at Pozieres.  Grief on eventually learning of her death contributed to ongoing trauma on his return home intensified by the accidental death of one of his sisters the day after his arrival in Sydney. After recuperation he went to Queensland where he attempted to resume his pre-war career as a wool classer but was plagued by depression. Photographs he sent to his family, taken in Queensland after his return, show him in uniform, a diminutive figure who stands legs apart as he appears to steady himself with a cane. The stripes on his uniform do not correlate with his service and indicate that the uniform was borrowed for the photograph but that it was important to him to be seen to be wearing it – perhaps because of his early return home. A literary work he registered for copyright in 1925 gave his Ashfield, New South Wales address – no doubt used as his principal address when away. It also shows that he was in Sydney in 1925 when he applied for registration. The work itself titled The Living Dead is a story of murder and passion set in north west New South Wales, Queensland and South America with brief references to the war. Possibly writing it was one way of exorcising some of the demons which his war time experiences summoned up for him.

In later years information about Arthur’s life was lost by his family and it was only relatively recently that Lois McEvoy wife of his nephew John McEvoy and his first cousin once removed James Errol Lea-Scarlett, were able to locate a record of his death. He died in Brisbane in May 1927 just ten years after his return from the war. He was unmarried and it is reasonable to assume that like so many others his life and expectations were blighted by his horrendous war time experiences.

Arthur Quong Tart as a wool classer and buyer in country New South Wales and Queensland lived in the bush environment and communities described so vividly by Bean in On the Wool Track and himself belonged to one of the range of bush workers Bean features in his observations. But Bean had no place for men like Arthur Tart or for the Aboriginal men who also inhabited and worked in this environment. Although these men were part of the world Bean saw as the wellspring of the behaviours of Australian men at Gallipoli and beyond, they were not for Bean and writers who followed him, amongst those who were the cornerstones of the legend called Anzac.

Some men of Chinese heritage, or who according to their attestations were born in China, successfully enlisted in the AIF even though they lacked the European descent required by the Defence Act. Yet others, despite the fact that recruits were urgently needed as the war progressed, could not gain acceptance, their rejection showing that the urgency for recruits was not always sufficient to overcome the negatives which led to the strict adherence to the provisions of the Defence Act.

The digitisation of the records of World War One service by the National Archives of Australia and their availability online have facilitated research into the diversity of the AIF. More information about Chinese in the AIF can be found in Alastair Kennedy’s 2013 study  Chinese Anzacs.

Philippa Scarlett 6 April 2014 

My thanks to Lois McEvoy for permission to reproduce the photograph of Arthur Quong Tart and for her comments on his life.  

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About Indigenous Histories

Author & Publisher of Australian history, art and culture.
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