Each year on the 25th of April we mark Anzac Day when we remember those who served and died in armed conflict. Anzac Day has become a symbol of Australia’s national identity. Anzacs means the soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and included many Indigenous and multicultural servicemen and women.
It was August 1914 when news of World War I broke out. Australia was to join Britain in the fight against the Central Powers, which included Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire.
Among the 420,000 enlisted soldiers over one thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men volunteered their service. Many others came from culturally diverse backgrounds.
Professor Edmund Chiu is a volunteer researcher at the Chinese Museum in Melbourne. He explains that despite a 1903 law, Ballarat’s Albert Victor Chan became the first Chinese-Australian to join up just one week after the war was declared.
“There was a Defence Act which actually exempted people of non-European ancestry from joining the armed forces. So you had to be predominantly [of] European descent to join the armed forces at that time. However, the Chinese-Australians who joined ignored that totally and enlisted.”
His research on the history of Chinese-Australian Anzacs has so far identified 217 men who served during WWI. He says it was medical officers’ acceptance that allowed these patriotic men to serve for their country.
“In those days the final decision rest[s] with the medical officer examining the applicant and a lot of medical officers just ignored that act and more or less said ‘if you want to join up, you’re fit enough to fight, well, you’re in.’”
Ethnicity wasn’t a concern for some members of the public either. There was public uproar when George Kong Meng was rejected from the Australian Imperial Force, despite his previous military service and his younger brother serving on the Western Front.
“And there’s [a] big outpour of objection from Australians saying why are you rejecting this man and he actually did enlist but he was not sent overseas to fight.”
National President of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans and Services Association and Gundungurra man Gary Oakley says many Indigenous Australians were determined to volunteer.
“The opportunities were there to serve but it is up to you how you went about it. You could either go to a place where you knew you could get in and that they didn't care or you could lie about your ethnicity.”
Those with darker skin tones found other ways to get around the ban.
“It was actually a medical problem that you were black. Some of those men who were knocked back in one place went and travelled interstate to other places and these were the days when you can’t travel on the road freely and they actually disappeared, went interstate, and joined in other states cos they’d heard that it was easier and the medical officer there was pretty slack.”
Gary Oakley says men of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds joined for different reasons – including the chance to first earn a wage.
“Pay, love of country. Probably also they thought after the war when they came back to Australia they would be seen in a different light. You know we weren’t citizens so they thought, you know, this will help us to become citizens. People will see that we served too, plus, it would’ve also been an adventure.”
Gary Oakley believes it was the first time Indigenous Australians found equality.
“Once you were in uniforms, you were basically in the majority accepted. When you were in the trenches, you don't care about the colour or the religion of the bloke next to you or behind you; all you care about is he’s gonna watch your back. You were an equal.”
Being accepted was something the thousand Russian-born servicemen had to fight for despite their European background according to Dr Elena Govor, a researcher from the Australian National University.
“In many cases, they had nicknames because they didn’t speak proper English. People treated them as strangers, as aliens, but it took sometimes several months [of] participation together in the battlefield for these people to be accepted.”
The Russian Anzacs were the largest nationality enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force after British, New Zealand and Canadian-born servicemen. They came from various ethnic backgrounds within the borders of the Russian Empire.
“For instance, Jewish people would fled Russian empire because of pogroms and they were just killed arbitrarily because they were different. Many Jewish young immigrants escaped from Russia because they didn't want to serve in the Russian army. Russia had conscriptions and people had to serve in the army but when those young Jewish boy[s] came to Australia and WWI started and they enlisted in the Australian army and they served along Australians.”
More than half of the Russian-born servicemen were Baltic seafaring people.
“Sometimes they jumped the ship. They couldn't find employment or they were threatened by [the] Russian consul so they just enlisted in the army. They didn't have all this ideas about patriotism and so on. So it was just part of their job they served on the ships now they served in [the] Australian army.”
World War I remains the costliest conflict for Australia in terms of deaths and casualties. More than 60,000 died and another 156,000 servicemen were either wounded or taken prisoner.
Unfortunately for many survivors, coming home didn’t change their lives for the better. The hopes of Indigenous Australian soldiers to raise their social status didn’t happen until 1949 when restrictions on enlistment based on race were removed.
“The shame about it was a lot of these men who went away from reserves in Australia to fight overseas came back and found the Indigenous reserve where they came from was actually turned into the soldier settlement scheme and they had been broken up. So the land they were on before they left, they came back and they couldn't go back on it, and you actually went away to fought for your country and came up and found that your piece of country has been parcelled up. Again, you were still not a citizen.”
Professor Edmund Chiu says Chinese-Australian war hero Billy Sing had a sad ending despite being assigned land from the soldier settlement scheme.
“Billy Sing, the most famous Gallipoli sniper, got pretty lousy land on which he could not really make a living. He end[ed] up giving up the land and went back to Brisbane and tried to make a living in Brisbane and died pauper.”
Dr Govor explains how some of the Russian Anzacs simply couldn’t cope with life after war.
“In many cases they still were strangers. They couldn't find their place. Many of them suicided. I guess many had this post-traumatic stress disorder which no one really understood and diagnosed and they misbehaved, they got into all sorts of trouble.”
Dr Govor was interested to explore how the Russian Anzacs settled in Australia following their service.
“That is part of our great immigrant story that you really don't come to Australia as ready-made Australian - it takes time.” - Dr Elena Govor, ANU
The Russian Anzacs became Australians with the help of local women whom they married. Dr Govor says Australia’s multiculturalism began in the story of Anzacs from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
“Sometimes those immigrants from [the] Russian empire was the only so-called ‘Russian’ in the rural settlement and many people built their image of ‘who is Russian?’ That Russians can be quite good guys. They could be not necessarily Bolsheviks or communists or whatever. They could be settlers like you and me. So it was really [a] very important message that they gave to [the] Australian society that people can be different and they can be part of Australia.”
Anzac Day means different things to different people. But Gary Oakley says for Indigenous Australians, marching on April 25th is about recognition.
“I'm finally being recognised for the service to my country. I'm being recognised by the wider community. I'm proud of my service. I'm proud of my people. I'm proud of who I am. I'm also proud of the non-Indigenous guys that I'm marching alongside with who took me for what I was - a good soldier, sailor or an airman.”
For more information on Australia's Anzac Day traditions visit the Australian War Memorial.