Stephens, David: Frontier Wars: fig leaf and credibility gap at the Australian War Memorial

David Stephens*

‘Frontier Wars: fig leaf and credibility gap at the Australian War Memorial, Honest History, 10 July 2023 updated

Update 19 July 2023: Peter Stanley in Pearls and Irritations (‘The Native Mounted Police: extermination on the Australian frontier’) asks an important question which goes to the illogicality in the War Memorial’s definitional constipation about which bits of the Australian Frontier Wars to depict and how:

Native Mounted Police took a leading part in conflict on the Australian frontier. As police they are supposedly ineligible to be included in the Australian War Memorial: but why not? They acted as mercenary cavalry, Australia’s own extermination squads.

Wars come in all kinds, from large, formal conflicts to small scale guerrilla struggles. There were no declarations of war on the Australian frontier because, having claimed the land, British authorities couldn’t legally wage ‘war’ against their Indigenous ‘subjects’. But they acted against the continent’s Indigenous inhabitants exactly as if they had declared war.

Before 1850 British soldiers operated under orders, mounting punitive expeditions, and after 1850 colonial forces (ironically and tragically mostly the Native Mounted Police) conducted even more murderous patrols to ‘disperse’ – that is, exterminate – Indigenous resistance to settlement. Throughout, civilians including convicts, squatters and stockmen also fought and generally succeeded in suppressing resistance.

On how the War Memorial regards the Native Police, see also the attached (redacted) Agenda Paper 178 to the Memorial Council in August 2022, especially page 29, which shows the Memorial’s historians definitely leaning towards accepting that the Native Police were a military force.


In recent years, the Australian War Memorial has worked to track down Indigenous members of the Australian Imperial Force in the two World Wars and since, and even going back to the Boer War – including people who may have hidden their personal stories.

Journalist and author, Paul Daley, however, once described the Memorial’s efforts on Indigenous soldiers as a ‘fig leaf’ to cover its unwillingness to properly recognise and commemorate the Australian Frontier Wars, which were far more damaging to First Australians than service in the King’s uniform.

There have been suggestions since September last year that the Memorial is to undertake a much broader and deeper depiction of frontier violence. Since he became Chair of the Council, Kim Beazley has said this depiction will be ‘substantial’.

Honest History has followed the twists and turns of this story: a summary. We have noted some backsliding at the Memorial, leaving what seems to be a ‘credibility gap’ between, on one side, Chair Beazley, and, on the other, Memorial management and Council member and RSL National President, Major General Greg Melick. This gap was clear in the evidence of Memorial Director Matt Anderson to Senate Estimates on 31 May, which we analysed thus:

Despite the undertakings of Memorial Council Chair Kim Beazley about future “substantial” coverage of the Frontier Wars, Memorial management still seems keen to constrain the treatment by looking at whether frontier violence survivors went on to fight in the King’s or Queen’s uniform. The story of Private William Punch, a violence survivor and Indigenous soldier of the Great War “not only speaks”, said the Director, “to the fact of frontier violence but also speaks to the fact that there are those subjected to it who then went on to serve in the Australian Defence Force” (page 110).

That is no advance on what the Director told Rachel Perkins in 2021: “What we seek to do is to tell the story of frontier violence in the way in which it affected the men and the women who joined the Australian Imperial Forces and went away” (The Australian Wars, episode 3, mark 57.00). It again raises the question whether the Memorial will only recognise and commemorate the Frontier Wars to the extent that they can be linked to later uniformed service.

Honest History first asked that final question in March 2017.

Still, taking the Director at his word about what the Memorial had been doing, we asked for further details. The full email exchange with the Memorial is here (under Update 9 July 2023) and below are the main points from the Memorial’s response:

Frontier violence is told through the story of Private William Joseph Punch … Private Punch was taken in by a foster following the murder of his family through frontier violence. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force at Goulburn on 31 December 1915. Many stories and themes are told in the galleries through the lens of a personal experience.

This personal story has subsequently been supplemented with artworks by Indigeous artists at both entry/exit points to the First World War galleries. The Anangu Pitjanjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands painting is in a prominent [position?] near the orientation desk and Ascot landing boat. This painting is titled Kulatangku angakanyini manta munu Tjukurpa [Country and Culture will be protected by spears]. The second painting is the well known Ruby Plains Massacre 1 by Rover Thomas.

We asked Honorary Professor Peter Stanley, former Principal Historian at the Memorial, to check on William Punch and the artworks and this is what he found, with two illustrations:

[Punch is] one of about three dozen individuals or small groups accorded a place on [one of three] interactive devices [in the Great War gallery], which offer visitors the choice of exploring captions to images. They each get a small photo (perhaps 10×15 cm) and 75-100 words of text. As you see, it acknowledges that Punch was the survivor of a massacre. That’s it: one line in a gallery which displays hundreds of images and objects accompanied by thousands of words.

I noted also that the AWM does display Rover Thomas’s (abstract) painting Ruby Plains Massacre I. The caption to it does acknowledge that “The Ruby Plains Station massacre and similarly violent confrontations occurred during the course of Indigenous dispossession. Frontier violence is estimated to have resulted in the deaths of 20,000 Indigenous people throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”

Note, though, 1. it’s in a caption to an artwork in a corridor; 2. it refers only to “frontier violence” – which could be “criminal’ and not part of even a “conflict” [between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians].

What should we conclude from all this? We headed our analysis of the 31 May Estimates hearing ‘dissembling and dithering in Senate Estimates’. The conclusion must be the Memorial in July 2023 is still dissembling and dithering – and that it is divided.

If Kim Beazley is still serious about the Memorial providing ‘substantial’ coverage that gives Indigenous warriors, in his words, ‘the dignity of resistance’, if he rejects the insistence by Major General Melick that the Memorial is only about memorialising soldiers in uniform, then he deserves the support of all Australians.

Update 11 July 2023: Beazley does not reject Melick’s insistence.

Meanwhile, he could have a talk with Memorial management along the lines of ‘stop dissembling, distracting and dithering and promoting the fig leaf stories like that of Private Punch – worthy as he was – and instead commit to properly recognising and commemorating the Australian Frontier Wars at the Australian War Memorial’.

*David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and convener of Heritage Guardians, opposed to the War Memorial redevelopment. He is a member of Defending Country Memorial Project Inc., formed to encourage the War Memorial to properly recognise and commemorate the Frontier Wars.

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One comment on “Stephens, David: Frontier Wars: fig leaf and credibility gap at the Australian War Memorial
  1. Leighton View says:

    Right you are, DS, without the semblance of a doubt.

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