• Indigenous tributes, official and unofficial, have bookended the Anzac Day parade in Canberra. (AAP)Source: AAP
COMMENT: Yanyuwa and Garrawa woman, Senator Malarndirri McCarthy will be pushing for greater recognition of overseas servicemen. This Anzac Day she travelled south of London to Southampton and Bournemouth to pay her respects to Australia's Black Diggers.
By
Senator Malarndirri McCarthy

4 May 2017 - 2:56 PM  UPDATED 5 May 2017 - 10:38 AM

"The cemetery was much bigger than I imagined, and the graves were not in any orderly rows. There were large crosses, small crosses and statues of angels on headstones.

In this part of the cemetery, the grass was overgrown. In the middle stood a centuries-old church, now closed to visitors on this grey and chilly day in Bournemouth in the south of England.

The only neatly kept area was the war graves memorial section where over seventy soldiers of WW1 lay buried. I came to pay my respects and to remember one soldier in particular.

"The Australian War Memorial archives show his 'enlistment application listed labourer as his occupation and his skin colour, was identified as black'."

But his grave was not here in the neatly laid rows.

His grave was one of a hundred or so service personnel, scattered amongst civilian graves in Bournemouth East Cemetery.

Private William Joseph Punch was an Aboriginal man who enlisted to go to war in 1916, in Goulburn NSW.

The Australian War Memorial archives show his 'enlistment application listed labourer as his occupation and his skin colour, was identified as black'.

He was a Queensland Murri, and a skilled horseman. Private Punch had received a good education and became known for his musical talents.

From the little I have read about him, Private Punch struck me as a bit of a character, someone with a sense of humour and who displayed a confidence and courage that comes from the deeply held belief that anything is possible.

"In what can only be described as sheer determination and pride, he then returned to the front to fight a third time for his country."

On April 14, 1916, he boarded 'HMAT Ceramic' in Sydney and sailed off to war, despite his own country denying him his citizenship rights.

Private Punch fought in the 1st Australian Infantry Battalion, but on arrival in France, he moved to the 53rd Battalion. Just two days into battle he was wounded in action on September 7, 1916, and transferred back to the 1st Battalion.

During this time back at the 1st Battalion, he lost his great warm coat which meant a further punishment of paying a fine for losing it. It was bitterly cold in the trenches, and soon Private Punch began to feel the painful effects of standing in freezing mud and icy water for long periods. He had to be evacuated to hospital suffering from trench foot.

In what can only be described as sheer determination and pride, he then returned to the front to fight a third time for his country.

But in April 1917 he was wounded once again, this time with a gunshot wound to his backside.

Private Punch was evacuated to a medical hospital in Bournemouth, England and finally succumbed to pneumonia and endocarditis.

Four months later he was dead, aged 37.

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After paying my respects to Private Punch's grave at Bournemouth, I journeyed by train to Southampton, to honour the memory of another Black Digger, Private Benjamin Combo.

Private Combo was also a skilled horseman and attempted to enlist in Bendigo in 1915 and did enlist for 19 days before his recruitment was cancelled because he was not of European descent.

He tried a second time to enlist in Albury, NSW, and explained why he was rejected in Bendigo. The Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in Albury chose to accept him despite his skin colour.

"Thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people fought for Australia in many wars. Thousands more died in the Frontier Wars."

Private Combo sailed out of Sydney Harbour on November 9, 1916, on HMAT Benalla with over one and half thousand soldiers. The two-month sea journey would pass through South Africa, Sierra Leone and Senegal.

Sadly for Private Combo, illness struck, and he died of pneumonia two days after leaving Senegal. He was buried at sea. His name is written on the Honour Roll in Hollybrook Cemetery, Southampton, England.

Thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people fought for Australia in many wars. Thousands more died in the Frontier Wars.

My learning from visiting the grave of Private Punch and the memorial of Private Combo is their incredible examples of resilience in the face of adversity, determination in moments of great uncertainty and forgiveness and love, for a nation and its people, in its time of deepest need.

Thoughts and prayers are with their families and the families of all who lost loved ones.

Lest we Forget."

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