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Churchill Fellow honours Aboriginal soldiers' legacy with journey to France

Joseph Guenzler -

Gamilaroi / Yullaroi man, Joseph (Joe) Flick, a Churchill Fellow, pays tribute on Anzac Day to Indigenous soldiers who defended a nation that once denied them citizenship.

Mr Flick showcases photo displays like the Coloured Digger March, exhibited in Redfern.

He is set to contribute to a new documentary in France next week

Anzac Day marks the anniversary of the 1915 landing of Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli during the First World War.

Despite their great courage and sacrifice, Indigenous soldiers were not recognised for their efforts.

"Hundreds of Aboriginal soldiers upon returning from war were ignored, their children denied school, denied soldier settlement land blocks, and soldiers even denied entry to the RSL and told to 'go around the back and we'll hand you a beer'," Mr Flick said.

Joseph Flick setting up a photo exhibition in memory of the Bondi tragedy. (Image: Supplied)

Mr Flick's mother and grandmother were part of the Stolen Generations, and his grandfather fought in World War I.

During his Churchill Fellowship, Mr Flick travelled to France, England, and Belgium, uncovering the stories of 91 Aboriginal soldiers who perished in battle or succumbed to wounds or illness.

He managed to locate the graves of 68 of these soldiers.

"It was an emotional trip. Standing in front of the graves of these young men, from Cape Barren Island, and from some of the Aboriginal missions in NSW and VIC," he said.

"It is a little known fact that more than 1200 Aboriginal men enlisted in World War I.

"Without them, and without all of our Australian soldiers, we wouldn't have the freedom we have today."

Mr Flick conducted a small ceremony at each of the 68 found graves, draping the Aboriginal flag across the headstones, laying flowers, and leaving both an Aboriginal and an Australian Flag at each site.

"I told them that their Mob loved them, and their Mob know where they are. I know a lot of their people won't get to visit those cemeteries. It was really hard to perform those little ceremonies."

Joseph Flick. (Image: Supplied)

Where details were known, Mr Flick read names and acknowledged family details, playing the clapsticks to honour the young men's too brief lives, a tradition signifying the return of spirits to Country, family, and the Dreamtime.

Each ceremony concluded with the recitation of the Ode of Remembrance and the playing of the Last Post, while also commemorating those with no known graves, but whose names are inscribed on Memorial rolls.

"When Aboriginal soldiers came home, they were treated differently," he said.

"My grandfather, he wasn't allowed into the RSL to celebrate Anzac Day... These stories aren't known or talked about. When my grandfather came home, his kids weren't allowed to go to school – not until 1947."

Mr Flick's efforts in locating the graves were the culmination of years of collaboration involving several researchers, families, and Michael Bell, the Aboriginal Liaison Officer at the Australian War Memorial.

He extends gratitude to Marg Powell, Des Crump, Philippa Scarlett, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for their assistance in providing the names of the soldiers and the locations of their final resting places.

"Because it's such an emotional subject, I do become emotional," Mr Flick said.

Mr Flick structured his Churchill Fellowship to meticulously research, document, and record the resting places of Aboriginal World War I soldiers, aiming to foster broader understanding of the significant contributions of Aboriginal people in defending the Commonwealth, thereby offering a profound sense of closure to the families, friends, and loved ones of these soldiers.

NSW Govenor Margaret Beazley showed up to meet Joe at his first exhibition. (Image: supplied)

Winston Churchill Trust chief executive Rachael Coghlan said: "Joe's Churchill Fellowship and his ongoing important work honours these brave soldiers, to ensure their sacrifice is not forgotten."

Mr Flick's Fellowship serves as a means to engage with the Australian government and populace, yet his paramount motivation lies in fulfilling this endeavor for the descendants of the courageous individuals who selflessly sacrificed for our freedom and peace.

"Another phase of the identification, commemoration and awareness of the significant role played by Aboriginal people in defence of Australia in World War I," he said.

Next week, he will travel to France with Gomeroi man, Peter Milliken, to visit the final resting place of Milliken's relative, Gomeroi WWI soldier, William Allan (Allen) Irwin DCM, in the Daours Cemetery in France. This journey will be filmed for a documentary supported by the Australian Film Television & Radio School – 'Bringing His Spirit Home'. This film will be directed by Yullaroi man Dylan Nicholls.

To track this journey, visit the Facebook page 'Bringing His Spirit Home Documentary'.

Mr Flick has recently launched a new photo display open for public viewing in Redfern Community Centre on Anzac Day where he will be speaking at the annual Coloured Diggers Event.

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