Black Diggers, a play written by Tom Wright and directed by Wesley Enoch, premieres at the Sydney Festival on January 18.
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following contains images of deceased persons.
1. It seeks to highlight the untold story of the Indigenous Australians who served in the armed forces during the First World War.
An unidentified Indigenous soldier.
2. It’s estimated that approximately 1,000 Indigenous soldiers fought in World War I.
An Aboriginal soldier (front row, centre) with fellow members of the 3rd Tunnelling Company, AIF, in France in 1917.
3. This was at a time when Indigenous people weren’t even considered Australian citizens. They weren’t counted in the census and most couldn’t vote.
Private Leonard Charles Lovett, a drover who enlisted and served with the 39th Battalion of the AIF.
4. When war broke out in 1914, many Indigenous Australians who tried to enlist in the armed forces were rejected because of their race.
It’s believed Private Richard Martin lied about his place of birth, stating he was from New Zealand when he enlisted in December 1914 in order to avoid rejection based on his race. He was wounded in action three times before being killed in March 1918.
5. Sometimes Indigenous men would be accepted by a recruiter only to be kicked out during military training.
Private Douglas Grant (left) originally enlisted in the AIF in 1916, but was discharged because he was Aboriginal. He later successfully re-enlisted and was captured in France in 1917, drawing the interest of German scientists and anthropologists as a prisoner of war. He was a talented artist and admired by his fellow POWs for “his honesty, his quick mind, and because he was so aggressively Australian.”
6. By 1917, the military had become less picky, and the order was made that “half-castes may be enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force provided that the examining Medical Officers are satisfied that one of the parents is of European origin.”
Private Harold Arthur Cowan, also known as Arthur Williams, pictured with his cousin Hazel Williams and her baby sister after he had enlisted in NSW in 1917. Before serving in the 6th Light Horse Regiment, Arthur was a well known boxer and played representative football.
7. Despite the discrimination they faced, many Indigenous Australians were keen to enlist for the opportunities it presented.
Corporal Harry Thorpe, from Lake Tyers Mission Station in Victoria, enlisted in 1916 and fought first in France and then in Belgium, where he was noticed for his courage and leadership. He was promoted to Corporal and awarded the Military Medal. He was shot in August 1918 in France and died soon after.
8. They saw in it the chance for better wages and international travel and the ability to prove themselves and push for equality.
Private Alfred Jackson Coombs (front row, centre) served at Gallipoli in the Australian Heavy Battery.
9. As part of the AIF, Aboriginal soldiers were indeed treated as equals for the first time.
The 35th Battalion formed in Newcastle, NSW, in 1915 was dubbed “Newcastle’s Own”. The Indigenous serviceman on the right is believed to be Private Thomas James Walker. The battalion fought at Passchendaele, and only 90 of the 508 who went into battle came out unwounded.
10. Indigenous soldiers were paid the same amount as their European counterparts, and accepted as “one of the boys” by most.
Charles Blackman served in the 9th Battalion, and in February 1918 wrote to his friend and former employer J. H. Salter that his fellow soldiers “treated me [as] good pals would.”
11. Unfortunately, this didn’t result in improved treatment in Australian society as a whole.
Trooper William Allen, who served in the 11th Light Horse Regiment, with his wife on their wedding day in 1918.
12. Director of Black Diggers, Wesley Enoch, told the ABC he uncovered stories of Indigenous children being removed from their mothers while their fathers were at war.
Private Alfred John Henry Lovett with his wife Sarah and two sons before leaving Australia in October 1915. He survived the war and returned home in March 1918.
13. When they returned home, Aboriginal servicemen faced the same amount of discrimination or worse than before the war.
Trooper Horace Thomas Dalton served with the 11th Light Horse Regiment from May 1918, and returned to Australia in July 1919.
14. Aboriginal land was confiscated to be given to ex-servicemen as part of the “soldier settlement” scheme.
Private Harry C Murray of the 11th Light Horse Regiment left Australia in December 1917 and returned home July 1919.
15. Only one Indigenous veteran benefitted from the scheme, and many had their own land taken from them.
An unidentified Aboriginal soldier, photographed in England in 1918.
16. Treatment of Aboriginal Australians worsened in the years after World War I.
Private Gilbert Williams was discharged from the AIF in 1917 after being found “medically unfit for further service” - according to his family, it was due to the colour of his skin.
17. The story of the Indigenous people who served in the AIF has been largely ignored until now.
Private Miller Mack of the 50th Battalion served in France and contracted bronchial pneumonia in 1917. He was evacuated to England before returning to Australia in September 1917. He died of his illness two years later, in September 1919.
18. Black Diggers will bring the story of these men to the Australian public, beginning at the Sydney Opera House this week.
Trooper Frank Fisher, the great grandfather of Olympic gold medallist Cathy Freeman, enlisted in the AIF in 1917 and was stationed in Egypt during 1918. He returned to Australia in July 1919 and became a famous rugby league player, dubbed King Fisher.