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Remembering Aborigines who fought for Australia in WWI

© www.sydneyfestival.org.au

Text by Stéphanie TROUILLARD

Latest update : 2014-01-20

In the 100 years since the beginning of the First World War, Australia has been most enthusiastic when it comes to the collective act of remembrance for those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

But it is often overlooked that among the 420,000 Australians who participated in that conflict – of whom around 60,000 never made it home – up to 1,000 of the so-called “Diggers” (the nickname for Aussie soldiers) were Aborigines, men who had no political rights in their native land, yet volunteered to fight for King and Country.

In commemoration of the centenary of the war’s start, their contribution is being remembered in a theatre production – “Black Diggers” – at the Sydney Opera House this week.

Nine Aboriginal actors, playing around 100 different characters between them, are donning the uniform of their forebears to put remembrance of their sacrifice in its proper place.

Director Wesley Enoch told ABC News it was vital the Aboriginal involvement was not forgotten.

“Our myth-making as a country is such that we often like to forget our Aboriginal history,” he said. “So when you tell a story like this, people say: 'What? There were Aboriginal people at Gallipoli?'"

In preparing the production, Enoch and writer Tom Wright had to do some digging of their own.

They met many descendants of these Aboriginal soldiers and trawled through letters and diaries kept at the Australian War Memorial.

They asked themselves why, in a country that did not introduce conscription during the First World War, these men who were considered an inferior race in their own land would volunteer to fight for their country in distant lands.

“They lived on reservations and had no money,” said Eliah Watego, who is from an Aboriginal family that produced three generations of serving soldiers.

“All of it went to the protectors,” he added, referring to the civil servants responsible for overseeing Aboriginal populations. “They weren’t allowed to be citizens and this was their chance to make money and to prove that you were someone who deserved to be in Australia.”

According to the Australian War Memorial, “many experienced equal treatment for the first time in their lives in the army or other services”.

Tom Wright told the "Sydney Morning Herald" that years of discrimination evaporated in the heat of battle.

"In many ways what the black blokes experienced was exactly the same as their white colleagues," he said. "The same horrors, the same shell shock, the same awful deprivations, the same violence.

"The difference was when they came back to Australia in the 1920s, they found it very hard, many of them, to find a place in white society and likewise found it hard to go back to their black communities."

“Black Diggers” features the sad story of Douglas Grant, adopted by a Scottish family after the violent deaths of his parents, and brought up and educated in Sydney where he became a skilled draughtsman.

His first attempt to enlist in 1916 failed because of rules excluding Aborigines from the ranks. But as the Australian army suffered increasing casualties, and in the absence of conscription, the rules were changed, and in 1917 Grant found himself on his way to France with the 13th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force.

Wounded and captured at Bullecourt that year, Grant spent the rest of the war in Germany as a prisoner of war, where his status as an Aborigine drew interest and attention.

On his return to Australia, Grant enjoyed immediate celebrity status and even had his own radio show.

But he found it hard to fit in to society, turned to drink and spent his last years in a mental asylum.

By giving these Aboriginal soldiers their voice once more, “Black Diggers” is reviving a period of history that has been obscured and largely forgotten.

'Black Diggers' runs from January 17 to 26 in Sydney, and will feature at the Brisbane Festival next year.

Date created : 2014-01-17

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