Anzac Day is a National Day of Remembrance in Australia and New Zealand that commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders “who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations” and “the contribution and suffering of all those who have served”.
The AAL holds a commemorative ANZAC Day breakfast and dawn service on the 25th April each year, commencing at 6.00a.m. This year was no exception with strong numbers attending even with cold temperatures. Diggers, Elders and community mob joined in a minute’s silence to acknowledge all those who have served and still serving. Aunty Beryl Booth resided over todays service with flag raising and laying of the wreath following by a breakfast for champions ended this most respectful ceremony.
Between 800 and 1,000 Aboriginal Australians volunteered to enlist in the First World War. At enlistment camps, Aboriginal Australians stood side by side with other Australians to answer the call of duty. They fought together with their mates in the trenches, they suffered the hardships of war, and their families and communities grieved those who didn’t come home. The contribution of Aboriginal service men and women to the First World War has not always been well recognised.
Aboriginal soldiers were among those who fought at Gallipoli, with over 1000 Aboriginal and Torres Islanders serving in the First World War. Marion Leane Smith is to date the only identified Indigenous woman to serve in the First World War.
One of the many who served was…
Corporal Harry Thorpe MM Harry Thorpe was born at the Lake Tyers Mission Station, near Lakes Entrance, Victoria. He enlisted at Sale on 12 February 1916, and embarked from Melbourne on 4 April 1916 aboard HMAT Euripides. He joined the 7th Battalion in France in July 1916. He was wounded in action at Pozières in 1916 and Bullecourt in 1917. Lance Corporal Thorpe was awarded the Military Medal and promoted to corporal for his conspicuous courage and leadership he showed during operations at Broodseinde, near Ypres, in Belgium, on the night of 4–5 October 1917. During the advance on 9 August 1918 at Lihons Wood, south-west of Vauvillers, France, a stretcher-bearer found Thorpe shot in the stomach. He died shortly afterwards and is buried in the Heath Cemetery, Harbonnières, France, with his friend William Rawlings, another Aboriginal Military Medal winner who was killed on the same day.
When it was colonised by Europeans, Australia was declared terra nullius; there were no formally binding treaties made with Indigenous Australians, so there was no recognition of the rights of the Indigenous inhabitants. The Defence Act of 1903 stated that all males aged from 12 to 25 would receive military training; as Aboriginal Australians were not of European descent, they were exempt from military service. (It was not until 1949 that all restrictions were lifted, enabling Indigenous Australians to join the Australian military forces.) At the outbreak of the war large numbers of Australians came forward to enlist, and Aboriginal Australians also answered the call. Best current estimates are that about 1,000 Indigenous Australians – out of an estimated population of 93,000 in 1901 – fought in the First World War (though the real number is probably higher). It is not known what motivated Indigenous Australians to join the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), but loyalty and patriotism doubtless played a part. There was also the incentive of a receiving a wage. Indigenous soldiers were paid the same rate as non-Indigenous soldiers. In general, indigenous soldiers served under the same conditions of service as other members of the AIF, with many experiencing in the army equal treatment for the first time in their lives. There may have also been the hope that having served would deliver greater equality after the war. In reality, however, upon their return to civilian life they were treated with the same prejudice and discrimination as before.
Only rarely did the Australian army note on a soldier’s attestation papers whether he was 'Aboriginal'; often just a description, specifying dark complexion, dark hair, or brown eyes, was entered. However, note was made of a soldier’s Aboriginality, in the event of his being discharged as unfit for service because of it. By the end of 1915 it became harder for Aboriginal Australians to enlist, and some were rejected because of their race. But this did not deter others, and some travelled hundreds of kilometres to enlist after being turned down at centres closer to their communities. Some who had been passed by the recruiter were then rejected while under training in the camps. Instructions for the “guidance of enlisting officers at approved military recruiting depots” issued in 1916 state that “Aboriginals, half-casts, or men with Asiatic blood are not to be enlisted – This applies to all coloured men.” However, some Indigenous Australians who were of lighter skin colour with mixed European parentage enlisted by claiming foreign nationality. It was usually left up to the recruiting officer to decide whether to allow the person to enlist, so people with darker-skin did sometimes slip through.
By October 1917, when recruits were harder to find and one conscription referendum had already been lost, restrictions were cautiously eased. A new military order stated: “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.” In 1957 the Aborigines Advancement League (AAL) was established by Sir Pastor Doug Nicholls, Doris Blackburn, Stan Davey and Gordon Bryant in response to the plight of the Aboriginal people in the Warburton Ranges. When Sir Pastor Doug Nicholls travelled to Western Australia with a Victorian representative side of Australian Rules footballers in 1935 he was shocked at the poverty, malnutrition and disease he saw among the Aboriginal people there. The Australian government in 1946 announced plans to establish a rocket range in Central Australia that would fire its missiles across the Great Central Reserve and the Warburton Ranges Mission, so when Sir Pastor Doug Nicholls reactivated his protests about the plight of the WA Aboriginal people and lobbied against it.
The AAL’s initial objectives were to achieve citizenship rights for Aborigines throughout the Commonwealth, to work towards the integration of Aboriginal people with the rest of the community while fully recognising the unique contribution the AAL was able to make, to attempt to co-ordinate the different Aboriginal welfare organisations operating in Victoria, and to establish a general policy of advancement for Aboriginal people.