Growing up Australian, one may feel a strange disconnect between our patriotism and the wartime stories from which it has originated. When we say the words ’Lest we forget’ in this country, I fear that something indeed has been forgotten, as if our history textbooks have been misrepresented with crucial pages left blank. This past weekend, as we have paused to remember 11 November, the 99th Anniversary of World War I, we should also be acknowledging the Indigenous Australians who stood by our side protecting this country.
How history is remembered
Australia’s national narrative is one of strength and resilience. It is a narrative of the survival of the oldest continuous Indigenous cultures on earth, one of enduring hardship in the creation of a federated state and one of building a modern multicultural society. Indigenous Australians have been at the very heart of this story, long before us. Yet, we as a nation have been slow to acknowledge, reconciliate and remember. For instance, rarely do Indigenous people receive much more than a symbolic ‘Welcome to Country’ before the commencement of an event.
New Zealand, on the other hand, has evolved very differently to Australia. The values and significance of the Indigenous Maori people have been embedded into New Zealand’s national institutions and culture. The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi is frequently cited as a model for native title recognition, from which Australia can learn and emulate. Kirsty Gover from the University of Melbourne has argued that this treaty acts as a ‘powerful (legislative) expression of the Crown’s moral obligations to act honourably in its dealings with Maori (people)’. Court rulings that deal with Indigenous people’s interests are therefore able to be implemented in good faith.
World War I was a milestone in shaping global geopolitics. Millions of lives were lost, livelihoods destroyed and economies were left in disarray. On the 11th hour, on the 11th day, of the 11th month of 1918, an armistice was signed to end the first global war. Every year, Australia pauses to solemnly remember this day, marking the end of the fallen diggers’ pain and suffering. Amongst those soldiers were brave Indigenous Australians. According to the Australian War Memorial, there were an estimated 1,000 Indigenous soldiers who fought in World War I. While it has been said that the real number could be much higher, unfortunately it cannot be verified.
Paying respect to our diggers
Indigenous Australians have played a major role on the frontlines, including Frederick Amos Lovett who fought in Australia’s victorious Battle of Beersheba. While all Australians stood united on the battlefield, Indigenous Australians were not afforded the same reward and recognition upon returning home. They were also exempt from receiving entitlements such as the 'Soldier Settlement Scheme', which honoured diggers with provisional land rights.
Understanding the motive for Indigenous Australians joining such a war can be hard to fathom, especially given the intensity of discriminatory practices against them at the time. This courage and fortitude could be attributed to Indigenous Australians’ abiding loyalty and commitment towards protecting their native homeland.
Rewriting our story
Australia is indebted to Indigenous Australians for their contributions to the nation in wartime. According to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, they have served in virtually every Australian conflict and peace keeping mission. Though little is publicly known of their presence, they have indeed served since the start of the Commonwealth era in 1901.
As we mark the 99th Anniversary of World War I, having re-examined our history, I think you too can agree that the first chapter should begin with Our First Peoples. Lest we forget…
Faseeha Hashmi holds a Master of International Relations from the University of Melbourne, and has an interest in politics and human rights.