Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A note on New England Aboriginal servicemen

Interesting piece on ABC Radio National's Awaye! Program,  Indigenous Anzacs: Letters home from Aboriginal WWI diggers reveal humour, sadness, (program itself here, Saturday 22 April) on Aboriginal servicemen during the First World War. Presenter Daniel Browning's great-great uncle Thomas Browning (photo) was one of those featured in the piece.

Quoting from the piece on Thomas Browning::

"In May 1917 a military order revoked the nominal ban on Aboriginal men serving in the Australian Imperial Force, although in fact many had already enlisted.

One of the Aboriginal men who joined up after the military order was Samuel Browning, a fisherman from Fingal (then known as The Caves or Caves Point) on the North Coast of New South Wales.

One of Browning's mates enlisted with him but was rejected on the grounds that he had no European heritage. Browning left Australia in late 1917 aboard the troop ship Euripides, and disembarked at Devonport in the south of England on Boxing Day.

In Browning 's letters to his mother Mary, his heartbroken bride-to-be, and 10-year-old sister, there is no mention of the horrors of the Western Front nor of his gassing in the trenches near Rouen in northern France in August 1918, just a few months before the guns fell silent.

In an undated letter from Bath, where he was convalescing, Sam wrote urgently to Fingal, anxious that his younger brother stay away.
"Dear Mother, tell George to stop where he is instead of enlisting — one is enough from home, so don't forget."
Elsewhere, Browning longed for the beach.
"I am longing for a good feed of oysters and pippies. I'd give ten bob for a feed," he wrote to his mother from the ANZAC training camp at Codford in February 1918. 
Others who served from the opposite side of New England were the three Firth brothers.  Again I quote;
"Francis Walter Bertie Firth served in the Middle East and lost a brother in Egypt, but his letters from "somewhere in France" are consumed by anxiety about missing letters apparently sent by his mother Kate from Pilliga in northern New South Wales but never received.

Bertie wrote to his mother on Easter Sunday in 1917: "Just a few lines to let you know that I am still in the land of the living," he wrote.

"It is about time the winter was over, I would not like to be here for another, the coldest place on earth."
Characteristically, and presumably without irony, Bertie signs his letters that he hopes everyone at home is well as it leaves him, "in the pink of condition".

Another letter suggests that he may he have been jilted: "I got a letter from Peggy the other day. She is engaged to someone else. Good luck to her."

I don't have a lot of information on Aboriginal servicemen from Northern NSW. Another who served during the Second World War was David Cook. From a piece by Noah  Riseman:

"Lance-Corporal David Cook is an Aboriginal man born in Ebor, near Armidale New South Wales, in 1945. Around the time of Dave's tenth birthday, he and his four siblings were forcibly removed from their parents. Dave was placed in Kinchela Boys Home for three years before being fostered. At the age of 17, he enlisted in the Army, seeking a life away from his daily troubles.

Dave served in Papua New Guinea, Borneo and Malaya before being sent off to Vietnam. Throughout his service he proved to be a successful soldier and was well-liked by his peers. He served two tours in Vietnam before being discharged in 1968.

When Dave returned to New South Wales, his life rapidly spiralled out of control. Cycles of violence, imprisonment and racism threatened to turn him into another Aboriginal statistic. However, Dave managed to reconnect with his siblings, who helped him get his life back on track through emotional support, stability and employment. Now retired, Dave does volunteer work in Cambodia, applying his Army engineering knowledge in a land mine clearance program.".

I wondered if readers had more information on Aboriginal servicemen (and later women) from Northern New South Wales, Hunter to the border? This would help me flesh out another part of New New England's history.


AIATSIS has an exhibition on the Stafford Brothers, a family with New England connections.

Debrah Novak put up a Facebook post repeating a story from the Grafton Daily Examiner on the attempts of Mackenzie Laurie to enlist. I quote:
This is a newspaper article in the Daily Examiner Tuesday, May 1916: TRUE AUSTRALIAN REGIMENT? CLARENCE DARKIES WANT TO ENLIST: Mackenzie Laurie has not just arrived from Scotland. He has never seen that county, and except he desires to help the Empire, has no desire to leave the land he loves and has lived in for 23 years. Laurie is, in other words, a young Clarence River Aboriginal, and has tried to enlist in Maclean, Ulmarra, Grafton and Harwood. He has been turned down everywhere he has tried, and, like many others in a dilemma, sought out the Daily Examiner man as a last resort. Laurie is bashful, if brave; had never been inside a newspaper office in his life before, and has always been a close reader of this particular paper – he read the tips and all about Randwick doings and the war. Here is his complaint told in his words.

“I want to ask is why not a pure Australian regiment? They won’t take me or Harry Grant, or Cowan, or Daley or Bundock- and we’re all Australians. They turn us down. They say the English will mistake us for Turks, and shoot us. But that don’t matter. We don’t care that we shot at or not. We want to kill a few Turks and (in deep thought and not wishing to appear misinformed) -The Bulgar (semi-nomadic warrior Turk) - that’s the fellow. If England goes under, where are we? Myself, Harry Grant, D. Torrens, T. Daley, Billy and Jim Cowan, K. Bundock, Harry and J Neville, Piebald, Ferguson, Hamilton, P. Mercy, my two brother in laws, and J. Morris and Alf Blakeney.

The pressman stopped; he seemed to have written a regiment. Laurie Persisted. He wrote on:
“Put all of them down, all of them want to go at once, NOW. There is also A. Olive, R. Cowan, B. Robertson, Donelly, Dunn and J.Boney.”

“All these are ‘pure Australian’s, everyone one of them as black as I am, no immigrants about any of them” (looking straight at the reporter). “You can call yourself ‘Stralian! You only immigrant Britisher. If you are pure ‘Stralian, you must first be able to speak our language – wurra-murra girooha lomiba booyamba, Can you say that?

The reporter said he didn’t understand the Australian classics.

Mackenzie Laurie continued to give names. “Harry Grayson, Walker, Cameron Fred Laurie (my brother) and D Cameron (my brother in law)”
“I want you to put all our names in this paper, and show the Government in Sydney that us pure ‘Stralians is ready to fight for the country straight away. I’m single, all teeth are good, as you see, good chest, aged 23, work for Mr Smith near the Common, and I am prepared to run any man on the Clarence 120 yards for any money up to 50 quid.”

“Tell them I am an athlete, went to Glenreagh Sports with sixpence in my pocket and came home with two quid. I’m off to work now, but if Sergeant Swan or Constable Sproule wants to get me, they can find me at Alumny Creek, ready straight away to fight for the country.” End Note: The is a photo of Harold Cowan from Grafton who enlisted in 1917 when Aboriginal people were finally allowed to enlist.


Hels said...

"In May 1917 a military order revoked the nominal ban on Aboriginal men serving in the Australian Imperial Force, although in fact many had already enlisted". That tells us two extraordinary things - 1] that the ban indicated that Aboriginal soldiers were to be feared or at least not trusted and 2] that some very brave Aboriginal soldiers ignored the ban and did their duty.

Were the men who DID volunteer fully integrated in the military units they joined?

Jim Belshaw said...

Sorry for the delay in responding, Hels. I have actually had several goes then realised that I needed to do more research. I still do!

It is not clear at this point that there was in fact an explicit ban prior to May 1917. Aborigines were exempt from military service, but I suspect that admission came back to judgments by individuals handling admission.

The change in May 1917 does not seem, in fact, to have revoked a ban. It allowed admission to half castes so long as one parent was white so may actually have formalised a ban. This links, I suspect, to the whole confused set of ideas over race and what an Aboriginal was, those idea also varied across the country.

Aborigines who did enlist in WWWI were apparently fully integrated and received the same pay and rations. However, when they returned they ran back smack into the varying discriminatory rules across jurisdictions.They did not receive equivalent returns to other ex-servicemen.

I have taken notes and will try to write a summary piece including later wars.