Single-handed and under heavy fire, Aboriginal hero of WWI William Allan Irwin rushed three separate enemy machine gun posts, capturing the munitions and crew before being severely wounded charging a fourth.
The date was August 31 1918 and Irwin was fighting with his company in Mont Saint-Quentin, a region that overlooks the Somme River in France.
The highly decorated soldier’s brave actions that day were recorded as “magnificent” and “daring”. He died the next day from his wounds, forever regarded a hero.
Irwin’s story is one of hundreds recorded in Serving Our Country, the first detailed history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers at war.
The book is the result of five years of research by top academics including Professor Mick Dodson, Yawuru man and director of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, and John Maynard, a Worimi man and Professor of Indigenous Education and Research at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales.
It was edited by internationally recognised military historian Professor Joan Beaumont, also of the ANU, who was also one of about nine contributing writers and the lead historian, and research associate Allison Cadzow.
More than 200 servicemen, their families or ancestors were interviewed for the 445-page book, which covers wars from the Boer War in South Africa in 1899 to modern times.
A second book is planned and many of the servicemen’s stories will be able to be read online at a new website http://ourmobserved.anu.edu.au/, which is hoped to be operational by Anzac Day on April 25.
Prof Beaumont, whose other books include Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War and Beyond Surrender: Australian Prisoners of War in the Twentieth Century, said in the past the roles played in defending Australia by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen hadn’t been properly recognised.
She said they had faced circumstances on top of the horrors of war that non-Indigenous servicemen had not. Many had a battle just being allowed to join the troops.
An estimated 1000 Aboriginal soldiers fought in WWI and more than 3000 in WWII.
“Particularly in the first half of the 20th century, there was a great deal of institutionalised discrimination against Indigenous Australians through the so-called protection acts,” Prof Beaumont said.
“Their movement and their place of residence were restricted and they didn’t have full citizenship rights.
“So when WWI and II broke out there was an unwillingness on the part of Australian military authorities to allow Indigenous Australians to serve.
“It was essentially said that only people of European descent were eligible to volunteer.
“Despite that a number of Aboriginal soldiers did manage to get accepted.
“The local medical officer or recruitment officer overlooked the fact that they were Aboriginal; just described them as dark or something like this in their forms.
“It was only part way through WWI in 1917 that the military authorities agreed that so-called half castes, that is an Aboriginal Australian who had one European parent, could serve in the First Australian Imperial Force.
“That same kind of restriction applied initially in WWII but again was relaxed as the war continued.”
Peace at war
Prof Beaumont said because of the restrictions it was difficult to say exactly how many Aboriginal soldiers fought in the world wars.
But she said once part of the troops, the soldiers appeared not to have experienced the same discrimination that they faced in civilian life in Australia.
“That’s testified in a number of ways,” she said. “Our project involved interviews with nearly 200 veterans and their families or descendants and this is a common thing — inside the army your skin colour didn’t matter.
“The problem that many Aboriginal soldiers faced was they had that kind of experience, they learned new skills and they fought alongside non-Aboriginal soldiers and then returned, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s, to a society that was still very discriminatory. “There was considerable and understandable resentment that they had fought, but they were thought to be inferior citizens when they returned.”
Some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers became part of activist movements back in Australia, seeking political and civil rights for Aboriginal people.
“Certainly with WWII, one of the things it produced was a recognition on the part of the federal government that Aboriginal men who had served were entitled to have the vote,” Prof Beaumont said.
“Prior to that they had not had the vote. So you can see some change occurring after WWII, but I think it is difficult to see a direct link or nexus between military service and immediate social and political change.
“What our book identifies is how this military service in the defence force ran parallel to activist movements and ultimately in the 1990s the reconciliation agenda and how the two together worked to bring about changes in Indigenous status.”
Also not to be forgotten were the Aboriginal units and patrols that watched over northern Australia and the Torres Strait during WWII, using their unique knowledge of the landscape and country.
Indigenous women too joined the defence auxiliary services inside Australia in WWII, providing clerical and other support to the troops fighting overseas.
Post world wars
Prof Beaumont said by the 1950s and 1960s it was easier for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to enter the defence forces, although the Vietnam War brought fresh challenges.
“There was a lot of confusion around that time about what and who was an Aboriginal person and the status of Aboriginal people, so some Aboriginal people did go to Vietnam but it was really only in the 1980s and 1990s that you see all of these remnants of discrimination eliminated,” she said.
Prof Beaumont said the Australian Defence Force today made significant efforts to try to attract and recruit more Indigenous people. The ADF was one of the major sponsors of the book.
There were also attempts to remedy the prejudices of the past.
“For example there have been efforts in recent years to bring back from Gallipoli or the Western Front some of the soil from near the graves of men who have now been identified as Aboriginal and to scatter that soil around the Australian War Memorial,” she said.
- Serving Our Country: Indigenous Australians, War, Defence and Citizenship. RRP $39.99, NewSouth Publishing. Read our EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT from the book.