Remembering Beersheba’s heroes, the Aborigines willing to die for their country

  • The Australian
  • Page 1 (cover article)

Two years into World War I, the reality of the blood-soaked battlefields had become well-known in Australia It was harder to find men willing to enlist and, yet, there was young Jack Stacey. Just 19, Stacey had been working as a stockman in northern NSW when he turned up at the Narrabri Depot in May 1916. The enlisting officer noted his particulars: Stacey had black hair and brown eyes and his religion was Church of England. As for his complexion, they put that down as “dark” while also noting that he had a scar, most likely tribal, on the outer side of his right leg. It’s difficult to believe that the AIF did not know that Stacey was indigenous and the enlisting officer would certainly have known that Aboriginal Australians were not, as a rule, permitted to serve their country. Did Jack lie about his parentage, or did the enlisting officer turn a blind eye? We will not know for certain and yet, on October 31, 1917, there was Stacey again, storming across the Palestinian desert, and sailing across the Turkish trenches, to capture Beersheba for the Allies, as part of the famed charge of the Lighthorse brigade. “He was prepared to die for his country,” says Stacey’s great-grandson Lance Waters. “And he wasn’t even a full citizen.” It is a remarkable story, but not unique: the Australian War Memorial estimates more than 1000 ­indigenous Australians served in World War I, including 100 in the Lighthorse, despite regulations that discouraged their enlistment. “They rushed to sign up in 1914, and kept signing up,” says Jennifer Symonds, co-ordinator of the Rona Tranby Australian Light Horse Project that will next week see descendants of Aboriginal Lighthorse soldiers return to ­Israel to mark the centenary of the charge, and to pay their respects. “Like anyone else, they wanted adventure, they wanted full pay, and they loved their country.” Elsie Amamoo grew up on the Yorke Peninsula. She and her mother Mischa Fisher, of ­Murgon in Queensland, are two of 13 ­descendants who will make the pilgrimage to Israel, in their case to honour Elsie’s great-­grand­father Frank Fisher, who was raised on the Cherbourg Aboriginal ­settlement. Fisher, also the great-grandfather of Olympic gold medallist Cathy Freeman, enlisted in Brisbane in 1917 and served as one of the “Black Watchmen” in the 11th Lighthorse. “I want Australians to know his story,” Ms Amamoo says. Some details are depressing: as a kid on a mission, Fisher lived a segregated life; in the forces, he was paid equally — six shillings a day — and treated equally by fellow soldiers. On his return, he again became a ward on the mission and, despite being a talented rugby player, he was at one point denied permission by the Cherbourg manager to play in Britain. Pastor Ray Minniecon, a ­descendant of both the Kabi Kabi ­nation and the Gurang Gurang nation in southeast Queensland, says: “Discrimination against ­indigenous Australians has always been common. Indigenous soldiers showed a warrior spirit but when they came home, their contribution was not recognised. They couldn’t drink with their mates in the RSL. They didn’t get any land as part of the soldier settlements and sometimes it was Aboriginal land that was carved up and given to white soldiers.” Mr Minniecon, who will travel to Israel to honour his ancestor, Private James Lingwoodock, says he is curious to know more about their experience. “We know that indigenous soldiers were in big numbers in the Lighthorse,” he says. “Some of them were cameleers. Because before the war, one job Aboriginal men could get was stockmen and horsebreakers. They understood horses. They had those skills. They made an important contribution.” The pilgrimage to Israel has been organised by the Rona Tranby Trust, with the support of the Pratt Foundation. Thomas and Eva Rona were Holocaust survivors who found sanctuary in Australia, and their trust specifically supports and preserves indigenous oral history. “There are so many parallels between the Jewish people and indigenous Australians,” Ms ­Symonds says. “They both understand dispossession from their lands, and the importance of oral histories … This project will ­enable descendants to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors, and when they return, they will record the stories, so the experience of those soldiers is not forgotten.” The Australian Defence Force formally repealed the policy that excluded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in 1949. Before that, indigenous men and women who wanted to serve either had to fudge their background or search out an enlisting officer who might turn a blind eye. The AIF did not identify soldiers by race on their enlistment records, which has made the identification of Aboriginal soldiers more difficult, ­although in some communities, everyone knew which families had lost a son. They were the ones weeping at the wreath-laying ceremonies, sometimes at the back of the crowd. Jack Stacey’s records from the Australian War Memorial provide a glimpse of how tough life could be for those who returned. While white soldiers got land as part of the soldier settlement project, he returned to the mission. He lost his returned soldier’s badge while crossing the swollen Barwon river in a flood in 1922. He lived much of his life in material poverty but had a big loving family, including 18 grandchildren, whose descendants number in the hundreds. Like so many of our First Peoples, he died prematurely, aged just 63 in 1956, too soon even to see his people ­become full citizens of the country for which he had been prepared to sacrifice his life.