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The Australian National University

Life Sentences - Indigenous soldiers of the Great War

Samuel Furphy, 'Indigenous soldiers of the Great War', ANU Reporter, vol 45, no 3, Spring 2014, Life Sentences, p 60

Often overlooked in the annals of the First World War, the stories of Indigenous Australians who served their country in the defence forces are among the most touching recorded.

One such soldier, Albert Knight, was the second of three brothers to enlist when he volunteered in 1915.

Serving on the Western Front, he was "a bombing specialist and a noted scout".

In September 1918, during an attack on the Hindenberg line, he "advanced over 200 yards in the open under heavy fire, located the enemy weapons, and had them destroyed by artillery," according to his biography.

Awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal, he returned to bush work around Bourke and died in 1973.

Orphaned as a two-year-old in northern Queensland, Douglas Grant was adopted by an employee of the Australian Museum.

He was raised in Lithgow and Sydney and worked as a draughtsman and wool classer.

In January 1916, he enlisted but he was discharged due to regulations that prevented Aborigines leaving the country without government approval.

So he enlisted again and eventually embarked for France.

As a prisoner of war "he became an object of curiosity to German doctors, scientists and anthropologists".

Among those decorated soldiers who did not return from Europe were two Aboriginal Victorians, Harry Thorpe and William Rawlings, who were killed in action on the same day.

Less than a fortnight later he fell during the capture of Vauvillers.

Born at Lake Tyers Mission Station in 1886, Thorpe enlisted in 1916.

He was a well-regarded footballer and athlete in brigade sports, and a noted scout.

For conspicuous courage and leadership during fighting in Belgium in 1917 he was awarded the Military Medal –his unit had nominated him for the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

On 9 August 1918, near Vauvillers, France, he was shot in the stomach and died shortly afterwards.

William Reginald Rawlings was born on the Framlingham Aboriginal Reserve in Western Victoria. He enlisted in 1916 "giving horse-breaking as his trade".

For bravery during heavy fighting on Morlancourt ridge in late July 1918 he was awarded the Military Medal.

Less than a fortnight later he fell during the capture of Vauvillers.

Like his friend Thorpe, he was buried in Heath cemetery, Harbonnières, France.

At least 400 Indigenous Australians enlisted for service during the Great War; the numbers are probably much higher as many did not declare their Aboriginality when enlisting.

Their contribution to the defence of Australia during the Second World War, particularly in northern Australia, was also significant.

Updated: 23 March 2017/ Responsible Officer:  Director, NCB / Page Contact:  Web Publisher