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Scattered across the Gallipoli Peninsula, the olive tree is a source of sustenance and a symbol of purity and peace. Prior to the outbreak of World War I, olive groves covered much of the landscape where battles would later rage. In the momentary lulls
between the carnage, they not only provided shelter but also a place to rest and regain strength. Uprooted and misshapen, the trees that survived stand as a stark symbol to those who left their own country and were similarly disfigured. Only a small portion
of the once plentiful olive groves remain, hidden beneath them and across the peninsula rest the stories of a different time.
Researched and written by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs Community Development Directorate, Aboriginal History Research Unit with contributions from staff and the families of the soldiers.
Whilst all reasonable care has been taken in compiling this publication, the department disclaims any liability for any errors or omissions in the publication. Readers are advised to carefully evaluate the accuracy, completeness and relevance of the publication for their purposes.
... They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them ...
Laurence Binyon, Ode of Remembrance
Lest We Forget
The department acknowledges the traditional owners and custodians of this land. We pay our respect to Elders past and present, their descendants who are with us today, and those who will follow in their footsteps.
Aboriginal people are advised that this publication contains the names and images of deceased people.
The inclusion of words, terms or descriptions from historical records reflects the social attitudes of the period in which they were written. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs wishes to apologise for any distress that may occur.
"The death is reported from the Dardanelles of Private James Dickerson, who enlisted from this district. He was wounded, and while being conveyed to hospital for treatment died and was buried at sea."Eastern Districts Chronicle (York, WA)1 October 1915
Over the last decade, there has been a growing interest in Australia about the contribution made by Aboriginal men and women in times of war. Whilst their involvement in our nation’s more recent conflicts is featured in many contemporary publications, little is known about Aboriginal service in World War I (1914-1918), and even less about their role at Gallipoli. It is estimated around fifty Aboriginal men fought during this campaign. The stories of those who served have to a large extent remained untold or, in some cases, are known only by the immediate families. Faced with the prospect of losing these stories forever, comprehensive research has been undertaken to provide an insight into the lives of thirteen Aboriginal Western Australian servicemen who fought at Gallipoli.
Their journey began within days of the outbreak of World War I, when recruiting places emerged across the country to accept volunteers eager to serve overseas. Men and women from all walks of life came to join the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) from towns and distant locations. Western Australia was no different, contributing 32,231 men in total to the war effort. On a population basis, this number was proportionally greater than that of any other Australian state.
The reasons for enlisting are varied. Many of those who volunteered simply saw it as an opportunity to earn a regular wage and a way to make ends meet. Others looked at it as an event not to be missed, rallied on by the press that portrayed war service as fulfilling a sense of duty and patriotism. Some were caught up in the excitement of the moment, while others simply followed their ‘mates’; light-hearted, confident, curious, and not easily discouraged. The training on Australian soil, on the voyage over, and in the Mediterranean only strengthened their resolve to succeed and to return home. Their hopes were dashed upon stepping ashore at Gallipoli, where over the ensuing nine months 8,700 Australian men had lost their lives, 19,000 were wounded and 700 were missing. Gallipoli had become part of the nation’s vernacular and the ANZAC legend was born.
The opportunity to serve in the AIF gave Aboriginal people throughout the country the means to achieve a degree of equality never experienced before. At the time Aboriginal people throughout Western Australia had to contend with the restrictive Aborigines Act of 1905 and the 1909 amendment to the Defence Act 1903, which exempted them from service on the basis of being ‘persons who are not substantially of European origin or descent’. Although some enlisted when compliance with the Act was not so rigorously enforced, records reveal that a number of Aboriginal men were rejected from February 1916 through to May 1917 when the restrictions were relaxed to address the appalling loss of lives on the Western Front.
Gathering materials for the biographies through archival and genealogical research led to a number of unexpected surprises. Some of the families discovered their Aboriginal ancestry, while others were reunited, sharing cherished memories of the past with one another and with us. Stories range from a glimpse into the life of James Dickerson, the only Western Australian Aboriginal serviceman who died during the Gallipoli campaign, to a love story bridging two continents and two cultures, to the family who lost two of their four sons during World War I. The biographies provide a snapshot of an era that, to a large extent has been overshadowed by the greater story of Gallipoli.
The experiences of the thirteen Western Australian Aboriginal servicemen at Gallipoli were similar to most others who served. They embarked with all the bravado of boys on an adventure, returning as broken men. Their shared sufferings of war were indelibly etched within them. For those who survived the horror and returned home, the equality they experienced from the point of enlistment, to fighting shoulder to shoulder with their non-Aboriginal mates, was not accorded to them on discharge. Denied equal rights, their transition to civilian life was doubly traumatic, for military service had done little to enhance their ability to obtain full-time work and access the privileges available to wider society. Aboriginal soldiers too, were not alone in experiencing significant health issues for the rest of their lives.
They Served With Honour is dedicated to the lives of those Western Australian Aboriginal men whose contributions at Gallipoli have never been fully known or acknowledged.
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