The Guardian Weekly – an Article and a Response

Annie Didcott

The Guardian Weekly of 1 – 7 August of 2014, on its back page, carried an article by Santanu Das with the heading:

‘Eurocentric views of the first world war ignore the millions of people around the globe – Asians, Africans and Pacific islanders – who fought on the same side.’

I was immediately struck by the absence of any mention of the Indigenous Australians who had also ‘fought on the same side’ and decided to consult with the Australian War Memorial for some hard facts. From the material that they had to hand, I was able to respond to Das’ article and The Guardian Weekly of 22 – 28 August 2014 printed my letter as the very first letter on their ‘Reply’ page:

Forgotten war veterans

I read with interest Santanu Das’s article (1 August) about the first world war and was disturbed by a significant omission in his account. He needed to continue south from India until he reached the continent of Australia and include in his discussion all those Aboriginal men who served in the conflict.

A 1901 estimate indicates that there had been almost 100,000 Indigenous Australians living in this country. It is known that of these, about 1,000 served during the first world war and just over 100 were either killed in action or died of wounds or disease. It should be acknowledged that officially they were not allowed to enlist, it being considered that they could cause irritation to the white men with whom they will serve. Those who were successfully recruited had needed to resort to such tactics as hiding their Aboriginality, claiming foreign nationality or by travelling hundreds of kilometres to find a recruiting centre that would accept them.

The Australian War Memorial is working hard to compile a more accurate account of the war history of Indigenous Australians, a task made very difficult because of the rubbery nature of early 20th-century records. This would have been largely due to the prevailing attitudes of the day, which regarded Aborigines as a lesser race. Indeed, there are stories coming to light of some extraordinary feats of valour by these black first world war soldiers that have never been acknowledged.

A former prime minister of Australia offered a very moving and articulate apology to the Indigenous peoples, but sadly there is still a very long way to go before there can be reconciliation in this country.

Annie Didcott
Canberra, Australia