The latest publication from the Coonabarabran DPS Local and Family History Group explores the untold stories of 69 Aboriginal men who went to extreme measures - changing their names and denying their heritage - in order to enlist during the first World War, despite it being outlawed.
Officially launched in Coonabarabran on Thursday, 6 July, “Footprints in the Sands of Time” has been a book 40 years in the making.
Researcher, Joy Pickette, first envisaged the idea during her teaching career.
“We used to take the kids out to Burra Bee Dee and Aboriginal mums and dads started mentioning to me, ‘my father was a soldier in the first World War’,” Mrs Pickette said.
“I was amazed at just how many tales involved Aboriginal soldiers and how little recognition had been given to them by the country for which they fought.
“It’s fantastic to see the project come to fruition and for the stories of these men and their families to finally be acknowledged.”
Michael Bell, Indigenous liaison officer with the Australian War Memorial, who assisted the DPS with photos, research and documentation, said this was one of many community-based research projects being carried out across Australia that aimed to identify Aboriginal servicemen.
“Until recently, it was a forgotten aspect of military history,” Mr Bell said.
“The honour of the Australian digger, or the Australian ANZAC, holds a place of pride within Australia’s military history and the Australian vernacular - what we’re trying to do is shed light that Aboriginal men were also there and bring them into equal states with other servicemen who get that same honour.
“And, in that unity and recognition, it will help us understand that the Aboriginal people, after colonisation and the dispossession of our lands, were fighting for a nation where it was illegal for Aboriginal men to enlist.”
A descendant of Mary Jane Cain through his grandfather, Thomas Abel Cain - who grew up at Burra Bee Dee, Mr Bell said the families involved in helping the research project were full of pride.
“They are extremely rapt that these men have received recognition as soldiers, and as Aboriginal men,” he said.
“I wasn’t surprised with the number of Aboriginal men that enlisted, who had a connection to Coonabarabran.
“We started with eight names and then, involving families, expanded that number to 69 by following strands and finding brothers and cousins.
“There’s already another 25-30 names that we’ve found, so I’ve told Joy we will need to put together a second volume of the book.”
While the national figure for Aboriginal soldiers who served during WWI stands at 1016, it is estimated the actual figure is somewhere around 1300-1400.
“You had to be of substantive European origin to join the AIF, which precluded our men - it was judged by a medical officer at the training camps if you were too black, or too Aboriginal to get into the AIF.
“In the case of William Wallace Chatfield, an Aboriginal man from here, it was written on his first attestation - ‘unsuitable physique - colour’.
“It is documented on his service record, but yet he decided to attest again and got in and served.”
Despite the restrictions, Mr Bell said Aboriginal men used a range of tactics to join the First Australian Imperial Force (AIF), denying their Aboriginality or changing their last names.
“They called themselves Maori or from the Caribbean nations because then you were a Commonwealth subject and were eligible, but the reason behind it was to cover the colour of their skin,” he said.
“Others changed their names - Matthew Williams was rejected, but got in as Matthew Revenue.
“It shows how desperately they wanted to serve. They wanted to be part of the war effort.
“It’s recognition of those additional hurdles to serve country that gives us pride and gives us the recognition that is long overdue for our servicemen.”
Footprints in the Sands of Time has also opened a number of new doors for further recognition of Aboriginal servicemen locally, with Warrumbungle Shire Council identifying the reworking of local monuments to include Aboriginal men who have been left off, as a priority.
The DPS will also be working with the community in relation to unknown graves, by trying to get assistance from the Commonwealth War Graves to give Aboriginal servicemen appropriate headstones and markers for their graves.
Michael Bell is a Ngunnawal/Gomeroi man and is the Indigenous liaison officer with the Australian War Memorial. He is trying to identify and research the extent of the contribution and service of any person of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who has served, or is currently serving, or has any military experience and/or contributed to the war effort. Mr Bell would like to get further details of the military history of all of these people and their families. He can be contacted via Michael.Bell@awm.gov.au.
Coonabarabran DPS Local and Family History Group researcher, Joy Pickette, pictured with Michael Bell, Indigenous liaison officer with the Australian War Memorial, who helped launch the book Footprints in the Sands of Time” on Thursday, 6 July.