|Sidney Gerald Jones volunteered to serve in the First World War in December 1914. At age 19 he was just within the army age limit of 19 – 38, but legally underage. His record shows he received his parents’ consent to enlist. He initially served with the 7th Battalion, one of the first infantry units raised for the AIF and in August 1915 was wounded at Lone Pine, Gallipoli. In March the following year he was taken on the strength of the 1st Pioneer Battalion. Less than three months after arriving in France he was killed at Pozieres between 26 and 28 July 1916. His body has never been found but he is remembered at the Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux, France.|
Sidney Gerald Jones. Courtesy Pam McGann.
Sidney Jones’ service and death is typical of many others but in one respect is unusual. Sidney Jones was Aboriginal. He is one of thirty men of Aboriginal heritage known to have been accepted into the AIF in 1914. The enlistment of men like Sidney Jones, who clearly displayed their heritage, would seem in contravention of the Defence Act 1903-1909 which prohibited the service of men not of substantial European origin. However it was not until 1916 the Army, in Instructions for the Guidance of Enlisting Officers at approved Military Recruiting Depots (Anthony James Cumming Govt. Printer), specifically nominated Aboriginal ‘half castes’ as amongst those who should not be enlisted. What prompted the Army’s 1916 advice to recruiters is not clear. It may have reflected concern on the part of some about the number of men already enlisted: according to information in their service records, the majority of the men of Aboriginal heritage who served in the AIF were accepted in 1915 and 1916. At the same time any concerns of this kind would have been offset by the increasingly desperate need for men, exacerbated by the failure of the first conscription referendum in October 1916. In fact despite the advice to recruiters, the need for recruits became so urgent that in May 1917 a regulation was introduced to allow the enlistment of Aboriginal men with one white parent – providing that such men had association with white people. However by that time enlistment generally, including Aboriginal enlistment, was irretrievably on the wane and despite the efforts of recruiters and a steady stream of recruiting propaganda in the press, it did not recover before the war’s end.
There is much to be investigated in relation to the history and circumstances of the recruitment of Aboriginal men in the early stages of the war. In Sidney Jones’ case it is probable that his successful enlistment was related to his family’s standing in the Deniliquin community. His father, John Jones was well known in Deniliquin as a bandsman and sergeant major in the Salvation Army. He had had 40 years of service when he died in 1928 and a memorial service conducted on his death in 1928 testifies to his influence and the respect accorded to him.
Salvation Army Band Deniliquin showing John Jones back left. The two women in this photo, yet to be identified, may also be Aboriginal. Courtesy Pam McGann
John Jones was the son of a stockman, David Jones and Ellen Tailby. Little is known about his parents but the fact that he was born in Forbes is an indication of probable Wiradjuri affiliation. He had been a member of the Salvation Army since 1888, the same year the Army was established in Deniliquin. Four years later, at the age of 40, he married a white woman and widow, Frances James (nee Gill).
Sidney was the second of John and Frances’ four children. He attended the Deniliquin Superior Public School, was a member of the Oddfellows Lodge and at the time of his enlistment belonged to a militia unit, the 67th Infantry. Sidney’s brother David (born 1889) also joined the AIF, enlisting on 26 January 1916 and serving with the 56th Battalion in France. Both brothers are named in the Deniliquin Superior Public School Souvenir Program which accompanied the unveiling of a roll of honour on 26 September 1917. Sidney’s name was also recorded at a wattle planting ceremony which took place later the same day, in memory of those who had lost their lives.
A surviving postcard sent by Sidney shows his warm relations with his half-sister Lily and her family. She was the child of Frances first marriage
A 1916 postcard to Lily, Sidney’s half-sister, wife of James Hood. It was written just over a month before Sid was killed. Courtesy Pam McGann. Pam is the daughter of Gladys mentioned in this note.
Sidney’s strong family relationships is evident too in a letter sent to his mother by his sergeant, Percy Donegan, published in the Deniliquin Independent, 6 October 1916 p. 2.
DEATH OF PRIVATE S. JONES.
Mrs. J. Jones, of, Henry Street, has received the following letter in connection with the death of her son, Private S. Jones, who was killed in France on 26th July – “1st Pioneer Battalion,1st Australian Division, France, August 5th,1916. Dear Mrs Jones.— No doubt you will wonder who it is writing to you, but you will understand when I tell you that your dear son, Sidney, was detailed off amongst a number of others to work under my supervision ; and let me say here that he always did his duty nobly and well. It is an unthankful task at any time to break bad news to sorrowing relatives, and it is more so when one has the task of breaking the bad news to devoted mother. But as your dear son wished me to write to you in the event of anything happening to him, I feel that I must carry out my promise to him, now that he has died the noblest of all deaths, in the service of his King and country. To you, his mother, I tender my deepest sympathy in your bereavement, but it may lessen your grief to know that he died instantly, and so was spared any lingering pain. I may say that his thoughts were always with you, hence his desire that I should write to you. I am forwarding you a card which I found amongst his correspondence, knowing that its value will be enhanced by you. With the hope that your grief will be lessened by the fact that your son has always carried out his duty as a gentleman and a soldier, believe me to be, yours in deepest sympathy, SERGEANT P. DONEGAN.”
Sergeant Donegan wrote sensitively and with compassion and his letter demonstrates the regard he had for Sidney. This has particular significance in view of Sidney’s Aboriginality. The potential for racism was always present, in an AIF which was told by recruiters it was fighting to keep Australia white and which was drawn from an Australian community steeped in the policy of White Australia. It is impossible to determine the degree of racism to which Sidney Jones may have been subjected – but the signs are that in life and death he was able at least in part to escape the discrimination experienced by some other Aboriginal soldiers whose names do not appear on memorials and who faced racism in their home towns.
Philippa Scarlett 17 October 2015
Thank you to Pam McGann and Michael Howard, descendants of Sidney’s half-sister Lily who provided documents and information used to write this post.
Little is now known of Sidney’s brother David’s family. On return from the war David married Dorothy Briggs, a member of the Aboriginal Briggs family of Deniliquin, New South Wales and Victoria. They had three children but he later disappeared and his movements have to date been impossible to trace. It is possible his disappearance was linked to the effects of the war time trauma experienced by many former soldiers.
Pam and Michael would like to locate other member of Sidney’s family particularly the descendants of David Jones and Dorothy Briggs and perhaps, should David have them, descendants from a second relationship.
Note: The spelling of Sidney Jones’ name in his service record, displayed online by the National Archives is ‘Sydney’. However the correct spelling ‘Sidney’ is used by his family in correspondence in his record and in pension applications also present in his record.