Identify and Recognise
When the First World War broke out, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had few rights, poor living conditions, and were not allowed to enlist in the war effort. Despite this, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people wanted to serve in defence of Australia, and were willing to change their names, birth locations, heritage and nationality in an effort to do so.
The stories of these men and women have largely disappeared since then, and their service to the nation is not part of our national awareness. The Australian War Memorial is attempting to discover the identities and stories of what are believed to be many thousand Indigenous men and women who served in our armed forces since before Federation. When what was once unknown becomes known in the wider community, then recognition of the valuable and selfless military service of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and their contribution to the Anzac legend, will begin to grow. It is a story that is little known, and deserves to be widely known.
Discovering these stories of service can be a meaningful and poignant tool for the slowly unfolding project of reconciliation; it has the potential to be a focal point and uniting, shared experience for all Australians. It will allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to share in the cultural beliefs of fairness and respect that are at the heart of our nation, and to ensure that racial misconceptions and discrimination have no place here. An important part of the role of the Memorial’s Indigenous Liaison Officer is to find the Indigenous identities of unidentified servicemen. Here are two such stories.
Finding Gilbert Stephen: 1 in 19,000
In May 2016 Joanne Smedley, a photographic curator at the Memorial, came across image DA18267. This was an original glass half-plate negative, made circa 11 July 1917, and the description of the sitter is given simply as Stephen. It is one of a series of photographs taken by the Darge Photographic Company, which had the concession to take photographs at the Broadmeadows and Seymour army camps during the First World War. In the 1930s, the Australian War Memorial purchased the original glass negatives from Algernon Darge, along with the photographers’ notebooks. The notebooks contain brief details, usually a surname or unit name for each negative.
Smedley had been patiently working to identify Darge sitters since the early 1990s. With her appointment to the For Country, for Nation Indigenous service exhibition, she became aware of the approximately 1,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen who had been identified by the Memorial. This list is available on the AWM website and has been compiled as an ongoing project over the last 15 years by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander military history volunteers.
On discovering the image, she sought Michael Bell’s assistance to help identify the soldier in the image. This became a process of elimination, based on her knowledge of the Darge collection and a combination of researchers: Philippa Scarlett and Peter Bakker, Jessica Horton (Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander volunteer researcher at the Australian War Memorial) and Michael Bell. After an initial search of the Australian War Memorial Indigenous service database and cross-checking with Philippa Scarlett’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander volunteers for the AIF: the Indigenous response to World War One, a single soldier stood out as matching the description.
It was agreed that the soldier could be Gilbert Theodore Haxle Stephen of the Gurnai clan of the Gippsland area, who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 28 May 1917. His service record indicates that he was stationed at Broadmeadows camp in Victoria between 18 June and 24 July1917. Medical assessment on his service record describes him:
COMPLEXION: dark (half caste)*
HAIR: Black and Wooly
DISTINCTIVE MARKS: half caste Aborigine
Stephen served on the Western Front until the end of the war and returned home. Jessica Horton consulted the family, and a review of family photographs with Aunt Doris Paton, a descendant of Stephen, confirmed the identification and provided additional information.
At the declaration of war in 1914, Gilbert Stephen was 15 and working alongside his older brother, Alfred, to help support their mother and siblings. Gilbert was not deterred by an earlier unsuccessful attempt to enlist and the racial criteria that were applied. His second attempt, in June 1917, was successful. Although he was only 18 years old, he stated he was 21, following his older brother Alfred, who had enlisted the previous month. The acceptance of both Gilbert and Alfred, and reference to their Aboriginality on their enlistment forms, was indicative of recent changes to Australian military regulations. In May 1917 they had been altered, in response to British directives, to allow entry of “half-caste” Aborigines – provided that the person could satisfy the examining doctor that one parent was of European descent, or that the person had “lived with white people”. Gilbert Stephen was one of a number of Aboriginal men to enlist after this change to regulations, but many Aboriginal men in Victoria and elsewhere had managed to enlist before this date. In Heywood and the surrounding area, including Condah and Hamilton, there had been an unusual level of public support for Aboriginal enlistment. Local recruiting agents welcomed Aboriginal volunteers and had publicly advocated the lifting of the bar on “half-caste” recruitment.
In October 1917 Stephen arrived in England as part of the 25th reinforcements for the 5th Battalion, based at Sutton Veny. He was detained at the military camp by frequent bouts of illness brought on by damp and cold, and was sent to the 1st Training Battalion. In August 1918 he spent some time in detention barracks after pleading guilty to charges of being absent without leave and conduct to the prejudice of good order (gambling); the military stopped the payment of money to his mother. Things did not improve for Stephen, and in March 1919, while waiting to return to Australia, he contracted pneumonia. He was sent home in May, but his health worsened and he died of bronchial pneumonia on 14 September 1919 in the Caulfield Military Hospital. He was 22 years old (or 20 according to his mother). Pneumonia brought on by the cold climate and poor living conditions weakened and killed many soldiers in service, and in the years after their return. Gilbert Stephen is buried in the Brighton Cemetery and his name appears on the Lake Tyers Honour Roll.
Captured in paint: a mystery solved
When the Second World War ended in Europe, Allied prisoners from many nations were released from prison camps and sent to Britain. Among them were several thousand Australians, who were sent to Gowrie House in Eastbourne. Here they were given new uniforms and pay advances, with 14 days’ leave and rail passes to explore Britain. Back at Gowrie House, they had to wait for a ship to Australia.
On 11 June 1945 the Australian official war artist Stella Bowen painted an Australian soldier who was being processed at the repatriation centre. It is not recorded what conversations were struck up between the artist and her dark-skinned subject – nor were the name or service details of this unknown digger. Bowen simply named the piece Private, Gowrie House.
This well-liked artwork has been publicly displayed at the Australian War Memorial several times since 1945, and formed part of the travelling exhibition Stella Bowen: art, love and war. In this time, tens of thousands of Australians and people from around the world have seen the painting on display or online. No one – not former Australian or Allied prisoners of war, members of the public, researchers or academics – had publicly identified this soldier.
In a remarkable coincidence, on 11 June 2014, the 69th anniversary of this artwork being completed, curator Garth O’Connell was looking through Jan “Karbarli” James’s book, Forever warriors: Western Australian Aboriginal servicemen and women.
O’Connell’s keen eye was drawn to one particular enlistment photograph, of David Harris, who was wounded on Crete and taken prisoner by the Germans. “I couldn’t put my finger on it right away but he reminded me of someone.” Then he realised the similarity to Stella Bowen’s Private, Gowrie House. The ensuing detective work began with a search for Private Harris on the National Archives of Australia website, through the scanned Second World War personnel files.
David Harris was a soldier in the Western Australian–raised 2/11th Battalion, and was a member of the unit boxing team. He was heavily wounded in combat on Crete and captured on 29 May 1941 at a casualty clearing station. He had been wounded in the left hip by shrapnel, and had a bullet through his left thigh and one in the right breast. He was taken to Stalag 8B for two years, then to Stalag 344 Lamsdorf prisonerof-war camp. He arrived in the United Kingdom on 4 May 1945 and spent the next few months there recovering from his wounds and a severe bout of pneumonia. This placed Harris near or around Gowrie House at the same time that Stella Bowen created the painting. Jan James very graciously forwarded an additional image from the Harris family. The images were compared side by side in the same profile, and they matched. Descendants of David Harris were all in agreement that this was indeed he. His niece Shirley Harris, who had known David personally, provided the positive identification. O’Connell comments:
The Australian War Memorial is custodian to a diverse range of relics and items relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen and women. Now we can finally give some form of public recognition to an individual who is featured in a wellknown artwork, by a highly regarded official war artist, for the benefit of all Australians. To help another Australian family learn that there exists an artwork in the National Collection of a valued member of their family, who volunteered for our nation at a time when he and his family were second class citizens at best, speaks volumes for their dedication to protecting country.
The value of recognising Indigenous military service comes from the way it reflects pride and a sense of belonging to the Australian nation. For the next generations, it involves the recognition of the whole of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories. Recognition creates an acknowledgement of the contribution that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have made to building the nation we understand today. It is of the utmost importance to remember their sacrifice, their deeds and their dignity by honouring this memory and sacrifice. Recognition will begin to address the misconceptions and myths surrounding our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, and provide a path that can lead to bringing the country together after so many divisions. It is the first step on the way to true and practical reconciliation.
This article was originally published in Wartime Issue 76 issue, Defending Country: Indigenous Service. Purchase in the Memorial shop or online for just $5.00 + postage.