Clark, Melanie: From frontier to front line: Indigenous Australians and Australian war memory

Melanie Clark*

‘From frontier to front line: Indigenous Australians and Australian war memory’, Honest History, 12 December 2018

Note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains images of people who have died.


‘Policeman Geordie’, an elderly Mirning man, was a survivor of the ‘old-time’ colonial forays. It would seem that he had little difficulty in 1927 recalling late-19th century first contact injustices as meted out by frontiersmen, William Stuart McGill and his station partners, William and Thomas Kennedy, in remote Western Australia. Publishing recollections of Eucla frontier violence, as told by Geordie, ‘Jeranger’ reported the hostility between the ‘settlers’ of the isolated Mundrabilla Station and local Mirning people.[1]

Geordie considered himself a lucky survivor, having only been shot when his brother suffered ‘a more terrible fate’. Allowing Geordie some concessions for his spinning a yarn after a substantial passage of time, he told of how his brother ‘was killed by [McGill], who … hacked off the native’s head and put it on the [Mundrabilla] gate post’ as a warning.[2]

Main-portrait-photo---GordoGordon Naley (National Anzac Centre; used by permission of Michael Laing, Naley’s grandson)

McGill was prominent in the Eucla district and his and his partners’ names occur not infrequently in late-19th century newspapers, particularly in association with frontier conflict.[3] Less known, though, is that McGill was the reputed father of Mirning man, Corporal Gordon Charles Naley.[4] Naley is one of the many Indigenous men recognised on the growing list of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander World War I veterans. His story is not unfamiliar, yet it is this seeming familiarity which gives it meaning.

The recently popular approach to Indigenous Australians’ service ‘[ensures] that indigenous veterans receive public recognition’[5] rather than interrogating and examining the significance of that service. Instead of being used to challenge and complicate the received Anzac legend, Indigenous experiences of the Great War have increasingly become homogenised into that Anzac ‘grand narrative’. Properly contextualising the experience of Indigenous servicemen – rather than rolling it up with the experience of non-Indigenous service – allows us to examine Indigenous war service as a phenomenon in its own right. This then has the potential to contribute towards a more holistic appreciation, not only of Indigenous war service, but also of Australian history more broadly.

As David Stephens[6], Joan Beaumont[7], and Elizabeth Rechniewski[8], among others, have acknowledged, we must ask ourselves who is benefitting from this homogenising tendency? Naley’s story offers some answers. Naley and fellow Aboriginal soldier Douglas Grant[9] served in different battalions, but were both captured on 4 April 1917 at Bullecourt. If and when the two soldiers did meet in prison, corroborative records are yet to be found. Naley found himself initially at Zerbst, followed by Limburg an der Lahn, whereas Grant appears to have been interned at Dülman before crossing paths with Ngarrindjeri soldier Roland Carter at Wünsdorf-Zossen in Halbmondlager, the infamous ‘Half-moon’ camp.[10].

But being prisoners of war is not the only life experience Naley and Grant share. An examination of Naley and Grant’s early lives shows that both were shaped by colonial frontier hostility. Naley was the product of what was unlikely to have been a union of mutual respect between his father McGill and his Indigenous mother, while Grant was ‘rescued’ as a child after surviving a massacre.

When recollecting soldier experiences, it is not uncommon to provide some pre-war context to justify the man’s inclusion in the Anzac ‘legend’. This too, applies to Indigenous soldiers, but, while it is common to include some contextual details regarding the discrimination and prejudice Indigenous men and their families faced on the home front, including in the enlistment process, the impact of frontier history on their earlier lives is never or rarely discussed in this context. Tales of discrimination and prejudice on the front line are routinely downplayed in place of fabled mateship.

A number of Indigenous service personnel experienced varying degrees of inequity. In Ngarrindjeri Anzacs,[11] Doreen Kartinyeri recollects an anecdote told by her uncle, William Karpany, where he and fellow Ngarrindjeri soldier, Eustace Garnet Wilson, were told to leave an inn when they ordered a beer. To justify his action, the military policeman, presumably Australian, cited the Aborigines Protection Act, which stated that Aboriginal people were not allowed to consume alcohol.

In another case, a presumably non-Indigenous military clerk commented in 1921 that the wartime charges levelled against 1914-18 veteran Stanley Livingstone Copley seemed ‘extraordinarily trifling and apparently border[ed] on absurdity’ considering the length of Copley’s service. Copley’s charges ranged from speeding and 24-hour periods of being absent without leave, to damaging a lorry transmission and failing to keep a lorry look-out man.

Alexander McKinnon’s war gratuity also raises questions of continuing prejudice, this time on the postwar home front. McKinnon stipulated that, in the event of his death, his mother Cobb was to receive his gratuity. However, in 1921 having recently learned of McKinnon’s death, his widowed stepmother, Mary McKinnon, questioned his will, stating that McKinnon’s parents were both deceased, indicating that she was entitled to his war gratuity. After lengthy consultation, in line with the racially discriminatory practice of the era, AIF Base Records in 1922 granted McKinnon’s gratuity to the very much alive Cobb, but it was to be paid to the Protector of Aborigines. McKinnon’s war medals, on the other hand, would be given to Mary McKinnon, after the military suggested that such items ‘would not be valued by Cobb’.

Carter_3027_POW_photoPrisoners of war, Wunsdorf-Zossen, Adelaide Chronicle, 17 August 1918. The original caption has ‘Private Ronald Carter of Point McLeay’ standing at right. Douglas Grant is quite likely the man standing at left.

Then consider the anthropological interest in Grant and Carter. (We have no similar evidence for Naley, although he was photographed as a prisoner of war.) By the turn of the 20th century, anthropologists had long shown an interest – arguably, better described as a curiosity – in Indigenous Australians. For wartime anthropologists visiting ‘Half-moon’ camp, this attitude appeared to be no different. Aaron Pegram, writing for Wartime magazine, recorded some visitors from a nearby university describing the diverse camp incumbents being ‘as worthwhile as a trip around the world’.[12]

It has long been accepted that the AIF was a homogenous organisation, and much of this is true, or at least that was meant to be the case on the front line. Each man was expected to perform his duties according to military orders and, in doing so, he received equal wages and allowances. When viewed through the prism of institutionalised racism, however, as shown by these examples, the derogatory physical descriptions of soldiers and a number of discharges for being ‘too full blooded’,[13] it becomes possible to critique the homogenised Anzac legend, not only in the Australian military and social arenas, but also in the current context of social and political recognition.

Each example contributes to the broader and more complex Indigenous Australian World War I narrative, and some century-old attitudes that reflect contemporary grievances. It is possible therefore to contend that, were the Australian War Memorial to officially recognise the Frontier Wars, such recognition could act to counter historical wrongs. On the other hand, such recognition could also run the risk of further sustaining the popularly received Anzac legend.

Appearing before the current parliamentary committee inquiry into Canberra’s national institutions, War Memorial director Brendan Nelson said that ‘it’s not until you [go] to the Australian War Memorial that you really understand who we are, what makes us tick as Australians’.[14] Coupled with Nelson’s explanation that he wanted to commission an artwork that depicted ‘the importance of country to Aboriginal Australians’, the continuing sentiment that the Memorial is ‘not actually about war’ is particularly loaded. Nelson went on to say that the Memorial is ‘about love and friendship – love for friends and between friends, love of family, love of our country’. Nelson was not explicitly referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander connection to Country, but he did identify ‘Australia’ as being important to Australians, collectively.

David Stephens has previously discussed how, since the Memorial’s acquisition of Anungu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands artists’ work Kulatangku angakanyini manta munu Tjukurpa (‘Country and Culture will be protected by spears’)[15] the Memorial has had to ‘[wrestle] with a difficult paradox’: ‘despite the outrages committed by settler Australians against Indigenous Australians, Indigenous Australians still donned the King’s uniform and fought for Australia’. Stephens goes on to question whether such a paradox exemplifies the ‘magnanimity of Indigenous soldiers’ or, instead, ‘diminishes the original outrages’.[16] Stephens asks: if Indigenous people are prepared to gloss over their history to that extent does that make their history – and them – less worthy of consideration today?

It is not difficult to see how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander narratives complicate received views of the Australian Great War experience. These accounts also have much to offer by way of expanding collective memory. To some extent, this process has begun with the Memorial’s acquisition of Kulatangku angakanyini manta munu Tjukurpa. Despite the mixed messages the artwork and its location in the Memorial may send, Nelson’s desire to acknowledge Indigenous cultures disrupts the widely accepted status quo.

8774306-3x4-340x453Douglas Grant (ABC Archives)

As well, Nelson commented to the parliamentary inquiry that the emotional mood of the Memorial is one that honours ‘men and women whose lives are devoted not to themselves but to us and their last moments to one another’.[17] It is the ‘us’ that many historians, professional and amateur alike, have upheld as central to the need to identify and highlight Indigenous Australian service as a significant part of a collective Anzac identity. If the Memorial is a place where Australians can learn ‘much more about themselves’, as Nelson suggests, then perhaps, through Anzac, Australians can learn more about the more difficult aspects of Australian history?

Adopting a more provocative stance, in 2014 Christina Twomey asked whether Australia was at risk of ‘compassion fatigue’. She cited the ‘cultural obsession with trauma’ as a potential ‘Achilles’ heel’ of Anzac commemoration.[18] In line with ‘bottom-up’ history, Twomey suggested that new understandings of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) provided a space for empathy and renewed engagement with war narratives – narratives that came to saturate Australian news and creative media.[19]

In recent years, artistic representations have drawn public attention to the service and sacrifice of Indigenous men and their families, but, from my perspective, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the seemingly benign inclusion of Indigenous Australian service in the Anzac story downplays diversity and appears to create a ‘we were there too’ rhetoric, comparable with that applying to other previously neglected groups whose presence in the Great War has belatedly been recognised.[20] Although defensible, the homogenised ‘we were there too’ approach seems to negate critical thought and steers attention away from the circumstances and characteristics of these groups.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers are not alone in being subject to such appropriation. The lionisation of Anzac has also seen individual experiences re-imagined to fit a myth rather than fact, or individuals have been manipulated to represent political and social objectives. I am referring here to the ‘last Anzacs’, all of whom were non-Indigenous, including Alec Campbell, Roy Longmore, Ted Matthews and Len Hall, whose deaths were marked by state funerals or commemorative coins and stamps or football tribute games.[21] The deaths of the ‘last Anzacs’ saw their personal, often anti-war, views put aside as they were propagandised as national – and nationalist – heroes.

Recognising that ‘official commemoration of formerly excluded groups is rarely an apolitical restoration of justice for past omission’ but instead ‘serves contemporary functions’,[22] then it can also be recognised that we should not simply homogenise Indigenous war experiences into the Anzac ‘grand narrative’. Instead, we need to focus not only on what might be gained, but also on what could be lost by rolling Indigenous experiences into existing Anzac ideologies and mythologies. Rather than critically analysing unsavoury truths, before, during and after the Great War – truths which have continuing ramifications in contemporary society – we need to look instead at whether Indigenous volunteers in that war have effectively been conscripted into the existing Anzac myth.

In today’s Anzac-inspired nationalism, where ‘commemoration provides an opportunity for governments to endorse values they hold dear’,[23] bipartisan support of the Anzac myth ‘effaces the contentions around Aboriginal dispossession and mistreatment’.[24] Uncritical recognition of Indigenous military service in ‘Black Digger’ narratives risks helping us to forget the more complicated facets of Australian history.

Many Indigenous World War I veterans pre-deceased the ‘last Anzacs’. Many Indigenous soldiers did not even live long enough to see the ‘politically significant and symbolic’ 1967 Referendum.[25] But these were also men who were proud and patriotic and wanted to not only ‘defend the empire’, but also their Country. Echoing John Maynard, ‘Aboriginal involvement [in World War I] is at once complex and full of contradictions’[26]. Looking for and finding evidence that ‘we were there too’ may badly miss the point.

220px-Douglas_Grant,_Aboriginal_Australian.Douglas Grant in later life (Wikipedia)

To return to Naley and Grant, on coming home Naley was fortunate to be one of only two known South Australian Aboriginal veterans to be granted a soldier settlement block, whereas Grant, despite his upbringing and education, ultimately faced rejection.[27] Both men died in relative obscurity – Naley prematurely in 1928, leaving behind his English war bride and six children, and Grant, jilted and disappointed in 1951.[28]

Anzac is often described as a ‘heritage’. It has deep roots in the Australian consciousness. It is unclear, however, whether a shared Anzac experience is an appropriate avenue for advancing (re)conciliation. Rather than rolling ‘Black Diggers’ into an already bloated Anzac legend, how do we ensure their individual stories are heard?

Perhaps, indeed, the key question is no longer whether Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers should be recognised and included in the Anzac legend. Perhaps Australia instead needs to put Anzac aside, come to terms with the impact and effects of colonisation, and recognise Indigenous Australia as the central pillar of Australian history and identity. Maybe, the question should be when will frontier conflict be acknowledged on an equal footing with the Anzac myth as a foundation story of this place we now call Australia?

* Melanie Clark is a PhD candidate in Australian Studies at Flinders University, South Australia.


[1] ‘Jeranger’, ‘By motor to Adelaide. The Outback Country: tales of the Aborigines’, West Australian, 6 January 1927, p.10, viewed 6 December 2018.

[2] ‘Jeranger’

[3] A key word search at yields many results. See also Peter Gifford, ‘Murder and “the execution of the law” on the Nullarbor’, Aboriginal History, 18, 1-2, 1994, pp. 103-122.

[4] My thanks to Gordon Naley’s grandson, Michael Laing, for sharing his family history.

[5] Timothy Winegard, Indigenous Peoples of the British Dominions and the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p.7

[6] David Stephens, ‘Paradoxical purchase: War Memorial acquires APY “Defence of Country” painting Kulatangku Angakanyini Manta Munu Tjukurpa’, Honest History, 17 November 2017, viewed 6 December 2018.

[7] Joan Beaumont, ‘Commemoration’, Joan Beaumont & Allison Cadzow, ed., Serving Our Country: Indigenous Australians, War, Defence and Citizenship (Sydney: NewSouth, 2018), pp. 324–45.

[8] Elizabeth Rechniewski, ‘Reconciliation or récupération? Indigenous Soldiers in WWI’, The Conversation, 31 July 2014, viewed 6 December 2018; Elizabeth Rechniewski, ‘Remembering the Black Diggers: from “the Great Silence” to “Conspicuous Commemoration”?’ Stephanie AH Belanger & Renee Dickason, ed., War Memories: Commemoration, Recollections, and Writings on War  (Montreal & Kingston, London, Chicago: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017).

[9] Paul Daley, ‘Black Anzac: the life and death of an Aboriginal man who fought for King and Country’, The Guardian, 25 March 2015, viewed 6 December 2018; Paul Daley, ‘Our most important war: the legacy of frontier conflict’, David Stephens & Alison Broinowski, ed., The Honest History Book (Sydney: NewSouth, 2017), pp. 240-55.

[10] ‘Prisoners of War’, The Chronicle (Adelaide), 17 August 1918, p. 24, viewed 6 December 2018.

[11] Doreen Kartinyeri, Ngarrindjeri Anzacs (Adelaide: Aboriginal Family History Project, South Australian Museum and Raukkan Council, 1996)

[12] Aaron Pegram, ‘Under the Kaiser’s crescent moon’, Wartime Magazine, 76 (2016), pp. 32-36, viewed 6 December 2018.

[13] See, for example, (National Archives of Australia) NAA: B2455, BILNEY E; NAA: B2455, BURGOYNE G; NAA: B2455, COLEMAN W; NAA: B2455, WILSON ER.

poster-2014NAIDOC Week poster 2014: Serving Country – Centenary & Beyond. The modern uniformed servicemen are reflected as warriors.

[14] Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories (JSCNCET), Official Committee Hansard: Canberra’s national institutions, 22 Jun 2018, p. 38, viewed 7 December 2018.

[15] Stephens, ‘Paradoxical purchase’.

[16] Stephens, ‘Paradoxical purchase’.

[17] JSCNCET, p. 38, viewed 7 December 2018.

[18] Christina Twomey, ‘Anzac Day: are we in danger of compassion fatigue?’, The Conversation, 24 April 2014, viewed 6 December 2018.

[19] Twomey, ‘Anzac Day’.

[20] For example, see Elena Govor, Russian Anzacs in Australian History (Sydney: University of NSW Press, 2005); Alastair Kennedy, Chinese Anzacs: Australians of Chinese descent in the defence forces 1885-1919 (The author: O’Connor, ACT, 2013); John F. Williams, German Anzacs and the First World War (Sydney: University of NSW Press, 2003).

[21] Costa Kastanis, ‘Freo set to honour the Anzacs’, Fremantle Football Club, 24 April 2013, viewed 6 December 2018;  Royal Australian Mint, ‘The last Anzacs [1999]’, viewed 7 December 2018; Tony Stephens, ‘Gallipoli 100 Years, the last Anzac: Alec Campbell’, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 April 2015 (first published 17 May 2002), viewed 7 December 2018; Tony Stephens ‘Gallipoli 100 years, the veterans: Ted Matthews’, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Apr 2015 (first published 11 December 1997), viewed 7 December 2018.

[22] Rechniewski, ‘Remembering the Black Diggers’, p. 400.

[23] Ben Wellings & Shanti Sumartojo, ‘Who owns the myths and legends of the Great War centenary?’, The Conversation, 30 Jul 2014, viewed 7 December 2018.

[24] Mark McKenna, ‘Anzac Day: how did it become Australia’s national day?’ Marilyn Lake & Henry Reynolds with Joy Damousi and Mark McKenna, What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History, (Sydney: NewSouth, 2010), p. 122. See also Christina Twomey, ‘Trauma and the reinvigoration of Anzac: an argument’, History Australia 10, 3, 2013, p. 87.

[25] Siobhan McDonnell & Mick Dodson, ‘Race, citizenship and military service’, Beaumont & Cadzow, ed., Serving Our Country, p. 49.

[26] John Maynard, ‘Missing voices: Aboriginal experiences in the Great War’, History Australia, 14, 2, 2017, p. 37.

[27] NAA: B2455, Naley Charles Gordon; Pegram, ‘Under the Kaiser’s crescent moon’.

[28] Paul Daley, ‘Black Diggers: challenging Anzac myths’, The Guardian, 14 January 2014, viewed 7 December 2018; NAA: B2455, Naley Charles Gordon; Pegram, ‘Under the Kaiser’s crescent moon’.



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2 comments on “Clark, Melanie: From frontier to front line: Indigenous Australians and Australian war memory
  1. Melanie says:

    Thank you Philippa. I just read your article (thank you!) and enjoyed your analysis regarding “Aboriginal soldiers were challenging the prevailing white narrative of peaceful colonisation”. Understanding the diversity of Aboriginal soldiers is equally important, as you point our in your article. These are important conversations and it’s encouraging to see more of these ideas empire and people engaging with them. – Melanie.

  2. Philippa Scarlett says:

    Thank you Melanie. These are important things to say and the popular generalisations dogging current views of Aboriginal war experience come at a price. I addressed some of the issues you raise in my 2015 article in Aboriginal History ‘Aboriginal service in the First World War: Identity, recognition and the problem of mateship’ in which I warned of the dangers of homogenising and incorporating Aboriginal service into the Anzac narrative as well as pointing to the many differences in the group known as ‘Aboriginal servicemen’. Philippa Scarlett

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