As a young woman growing up in north-western NSW in the 1930s, Isabel Flick couldn’t understand why her father had stopped attending the local Anzac Day parades.
Single and only 23 years of age when he enlisted, Michael Flick didn’t return to the family’s home town of Collarenebri until 1919. The family was proud of his service in the First World War and Isabel used to chide her father about his reluctance to take part in the one day in the year when the courage and sacrifice of returned soldiers was recognised.
As historian Professor Heather Goodall tells the story, one year, on Anzac Day, Michael did don his uniform and medals and head into town. But instead of joining the other veterans, he walked straight through the parade, in the opposite direction. Then he went down to the river to fish with his mates.
Like many other Indigenous Australians who served in the war, Flick returned from the front to discover that he was not only refused a Soldier Settlement block and membership of the local RSL club, but his children had been denied enrolment at the public school and were at risk of being taken away by the authorities.
Having proved themselves on the battlefront, Black Diggers had expected things to change for them and their families once they returned home, says Professor Goodall, who has researched and published extensively in the field of Indigenous history.
“These men had expected so much,” says Professor Goodall, an academic at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) and a core member of the university’s Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Research Centre.
“They had been sure their courage would be recognised just like everybody else’s. But when they came back from the war they were excluded from the things offered to white veterans … Mick had expected his sacrifice to be recognised. It wasn’t.”
In July, Professor Goodall delivered a paper at a Sydney seminar that examined how Indigenous women viewed their men’s service, through the eyes of two women – Isabel Flick and prominent Indigenous activist Pearl Gibbs.
The More than Service seminar held at the State Library of NSW heard also from professors Mick Dodson and John Maynard. They head up a new project, Serving our Country, that aims to compile a history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have served in Australia’s armed forces.
Indigenous Australians have served in all major conflicts, from the Boer War to Afghanistan, but history books are largely silent on their contributions, says Professor Dodson, the Director of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies.
What has ended up as a four-year, $4 million project funded by the Australian Research Council, began with a review of the literature about Black Diggers.
“The review revealed that the story of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in conflicts that Australia was involved in was relatively untold and some would argue, ignored,” says Professor Dodson.
“We wanted to know why they enlisted; we wanted to know what happened while they were in the military ... and we wanted to know what happened when they came home.”
Not only have these stories not been told to the broader Australian public but the descriptions of Indigenous communities in the years leading up to the First World War have painted a misleading picture, says Professor Maynard, Director of the Wollotuka Institute at the University of Newcastle.
“Incredibly, up to this point [of the war], 84 per cent of Aboriginal people in NSW were self-sufficient and prospering on their own country,” he says. “These were not the reserves of the 1930s when everyone was thrown together and every decision in your life was taken away. These were the independent farmers, on land they had cleared, fenced, cropped. They had livestock and houses they had built.”
Professor Maynard’s study of data about NSW soldiers shows that the Indigenous Australians who enlisted left jobs behind.
“Of the hundreds of Aborigines who were recorded in the enlistment papers, not one of them didn’t have a job. They might have been a farm hand; they might have been a stockman …. there are some incredible revelations. There was a truck driver; there was a butcher, a musician, a journalist!
“We understood we were all on the reserves and missions accepting blankets, sugar, tea and flour. This was not the case. The history we have been told is completely wrong.”
Like the white community, Indigenous Australians held mixed views about the war. Some agitated against it and against conscription. Others displayed patriotic support for the war effort and the British Empire, raising funds for overseas refugees, holding fetes for the war effort or knitting socks for the Diggers in the trenches.
By studying official records, family diaries and letters, and talking to surviving relatives, professors Dodson and Maynard hope to tease out the reasons Indigenous Australians enlisted. What is clear is the lengths they went to to do so. During the First World War, the Defence Act 1903 excluded people who were not substantially of European origin or descent from enlisting. Many recruitment officers ignored the rule but Professor Maynard says many Indigenous men claimed some other racial identity to get around the rule.
“They could be Maori, Islander, Jewish, Portuguese, they could be anything else,” he says, adding that historians have so far identified at least 1000 Indigenous First World War servicemen.
Once enlisted, Indigenous soldiers could be found breaking in horses for the Australian Light Horse, fighting in the trenches in France or risking capture in Palestine. Some were wounded; some died in action and were buried in mass graves. Others made it home. Some, like Harry Thorpe, were decorated for their actions. The citation for Thorpe’s Distinguished Conduct Medal reads: “During the attack south of Villers-Bretonneux on the night of 17-18 July, 1918, this soldier displayed great coolness and exceptional bravery under very heavy artillery fire. In company with Private Homan, he succeeded in carrying messages back under intense artillery and machine gun fire in the face of what seemed certain death. By his action, much needed assistance was secured, and the position held. “
Having served side by side with and earning pay equal to that received by their non-Indigenous comrades, it must have been galling for Black Diggers to return home to face discrimination on every front. In some instances, conditions had deteriorated. Indigenous children had been taken away during their fathers’ absence and Indigenous land given to white soldiers with no recompense for Aboriginal families, says Professor Maynard.
It’s likely that one of the reasons Indigenous Australians enlisted was to escape the control of the protection boards. But historians now say that their anger at their treatment after the war helped sow the seeds for a wave of political activism in the mid- to late 1920s.
Professor Goodall says many Indigenous civilians were proud of their men for serving in the war – but “then they became aware of their betrayal [by the government]”.
Michael Flick survived the war to raise a family, but his experience after the war changed his attitude towards the military, she says. When his sons were thinking of enlisting to serve in the Second World War he told them: “This is not your war. It is their war.”