Speech to Parliament - Service of our First Nations Soldiers

By David Smith MP

11 November 2020

House of Representatives

Federation Chamber

Constituency Statements

Service of our First Nations Soldiers

Mr DAVID SMITH (Bean) (17:47): On this hallowed day of reflection and in NAIDOC Week, I would like to raise the service of our First Nations soldiers, Australians who throughout the First World War admirably fought for a nation that, sadly, refused to acknowledge their existence.

The division of Bean, which I represent, is named after Australia's great World War I historian Charles Bean. His legacy is profound and it reminds us that history matters. Indeed, in recent years, we have seen a commendable effort from the Australian War Memorial, an institution conceived by Bean, to cast a light on these untold stories.

Last year, it was a privileged to be at the dedication of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sculpture For Our Country in the grounds of the memorial. Revealing the true history of our nation and challenging a once accepted view of our war service is critical. Truth-telling across all parts of our story is critical. Over a thousand Indigenous Australians fought in the First World War. They came from a section of society with few rights, low wages and poor living conditions.

Most Indigenous Australians could not vote and none were counted in the census. Many Indigenous Australians denied their Aboriginality and kinship to enlist, serve, fight, suffer and die for the nation that had taken so much from them.

I would like to mention some of these First Nations soldiers that served Australia—soldiers such as Private Richard Martin, who served with the 47th Infantry Battalion in France, was wounded three times, yet continued to fight on. In order to serve, Private Martin lied about his ancestry, claiming to be born in New Zealand—in truth, hailing from Queensland. Private Martin was finally killed in March 1918.

Then there was Corporal Harry Thorpe. Born in Victoria, Thorpe enlisted and set sail from Melbourne in 1916 before joining up with the 7th Battalion in France. During operations near Ypres in 1917, Corporal Thorpe demonstrated conspicuous courage and leadership, being awarded the military medal and receiving a promotion.

They were men who endured the same hardship, chaos and tribulation as their fellow soldiers, yet for decades, as we revered the sacrifice of others, they remained banished to the shadows of history. Unfortunately, despite Indigenous Australians serving on equal terms, after the war, in areas such as education, employment and freedom, Aboriginal ex-service men and women found their discrimination remained or, indeed, had worsened during the war period.

They fought shoulder-to-shoulder with their mates in the muddy trenches of Western Europe but, on return, were forced to have a beer apart in the local pub. I would like to acknowledge the work of Defence in recent times to rectify the decades of injustice, but we must remember these stories, not just on Remembrance Day but as part of NAIDOC Week.