Day 353 of Colourisation Project – April 25
Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following contains an image of a deceased person.
They were “unable to vote but eligible to die.”
It is estimated that up to 1,000 Aboriginal diggers served in World War I, and around 5000 in World War II. The veracity of these numbers can never be ascertained because the Department of Veterans Affairs at the time only listed soldiers’ names, not cultural backgrounds. That requirement didn’t come in until after the Vietnam War.
Indigenous Australians have served with the AIF in every armed conflict from the Boer War to Afghanistan, but you wouldn’t know it from the history books.
Private Miller Mack of the 50th Battalion was one of those diggers. A labourer from Point McLeay mission, in South Australia, he enlisted in 1916 and survived the Battle of Messines in France, but developed severe bronchial pneumonia. He was returned to Australia in September, 2017 only to die from his illness two years later at Bedford Park Sanatorium for returned soldiers. He was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave at the West Terrace cemetery outside the military section.
In January 1920, the patients at Bedford Park Sanatorium for returned soldiers raised the money for a headstone. At least he died at home.
Eleven known Aboriginal soldiers were killed at Gallipoli. Twenty-one known Aboriginal soldiers survived the battle. I say known because during World War I, the Defence Act of 1903 excluded people, who were not ‘substantially’ of European origin or descent, from enlisting. Many Aboriginal diggers got around this by pretending to be Maori, Indian, Portuguese, Pacific Islander or just plain lying about their backgrounds.
By 1917, due to the shortage of volunteers and the carnage on the Western Front, the military had become conveniently less selective, and decided that “half-castes may be enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force provided that the examining Medical Officers are satisfied that one of the parents is of European origin.”
The same rules applied in the Second World War, and again due to heavy losses in the early stages of the war, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were allowed to join the forces.
Life for Aborigines in Australia in the early 19th century looked very unpromising. Under the Protectors’ Acts, they could not enter a public bar, marry non-Aboriginal partners or buy property. Leaving home to go and fight a war for their oppressors afforded them opportunities that they would never have experienced otherwise plus they got paid handsomely, and as much as white soldiers.
Lest we forget: Indigenous people weren’t even considered Australian citizens. They weren’t counted in the census and they couldn’t vote.
For many, their time in the defense services would be the first time in their lives that they experienced equal treatment. The trenches did not discriminate.
Lest we forget: Upon returning to civilian life however, many went back to being second-rate citizens. Shunned by society at large, Aboriginal servicemen returned to fight another battle –the same prejudice and discrimination they fought before the war.
Their war-time efforts and sacrifices were ignored by State and Federal Governments. They were denied entitlements available to white soldiers such as Soldier Settlement blocks and membership of the The Returned Servicemen’s League (RSL).
Lest we forget: Aboriginal land was confiscated to be given to ex-servicemen as part of the Soldier Settlement scheme.
The story of the Indigenous people who served in the armed forces during the First World War and subsequent wars has largely been ignored. The history books need to be adjusted. Their stories deserve to be told. They must be told. Feel free to pass this story on.
LEST WE FORGET
A century after his death, Private Miller Mack was finally laid to rest in Raukkan, the South Australian community in which he grew up.
After locating his remains, his descendants fought a two year battle to have his body exhumed and returned home to Ngarrindjeri country, near the Murray Mouth.
In March 2017, with the help of Aboriginal Veterans South Australia, Miller Mack was given a service with full military honours with family, politicians and top service men and women in attendance.